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Baby face-off: the roots of attraction.

Baby face-off: The roots of attraction

An attractive face may not just be in theeye of the beholder. Infants as young as 2 months old, with little or no exposure to many cultural influences on standards of beauty, show a preference for women's faces that have been rated as attractive by young adults, report psychologist Judith H. Langlois of the University of Texas at Austin and her collegues.

"For reasons we don't understand,which may include an innate capacity or early learning, there appears to be a predisposition among infants to discriminate attractive from unattractive faces,' says Langlois. This conclusion "may seem surprising,' she adds, since it is often assumed that attractiveness preferences stem from gradual exposure to television and other cultural forces.

No one can define attractiveness, saysLanglois, but studies have shown that children and adults are often confident they know when a face is attractive and largely agree on who is attractive.

The Texas investigators expanded onthis work by studying 34 infants who were 6 to 8 months old and 30 infants who were 2 to 3 months old. The 37 boys and 27 girls in the study were all from middle-class families. Infants were shown color slides of 16 adult Caucasian women, half of whom were judged moderately attractive and half of whom were judged moderately unattractive by a sample of several hundred undergraduate men and women.

When pairs of faces, one attractive andone unattractive, were viewed in two 10-second presentations (so that the left-right positioning of the slides could be reversed to control for any tendencies to gaze toward one side), about two-thirds of both older and younger infants looked significantly longer at the attractive faces, report the researchers in the May DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY. In a second trial, in which pairs of attractive faces were displayed followed by unattractive pairs, nearly the same number of older infants showed a marked preference for the attractive faces. Younger infants, however, displayed no preference for attractive over unattractive faces in the second experiment.

The last finding, says Langlois, is probablydue to the fact that, given relatively short trial lengths, younger infants are less able to release their attention from visual stimuli of all types and may find an unattractive face interesting when an attractive alternative is unavailable. There was a good deal of individual variation in attention to and interest in the slides among all the infants, adds Langlois, which may account for the one-third who showed no preference for attractive faces in the first trial.

Nevertheless, it is far from clear whymany infants prefer attractive faces. The tendency may be partly influenced by the nature of human vision. Attractive faces may be more curved, less angular and more vertically symmetrical than unattractive faces; these forms are known to be preferred by infants, says Langlois.

When combined with recent evidencethat judgments of attractiveness vary far less both between and within a number of diverse cultures than previously assumed, the infant data suggest that a "universal standard of attractiveness' may interact with cultural factors and changing conceptions of beauty over time, suggests Langlois.

At this point, however, "we don't knowwhy infants, or adults for that matter, show consistent preferences for attractive faces,' she says. But Langlois adds that the findings "seriously challenge the assumption that attractiveness is merely "in the eye of the beholder.''
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Title Annotation:babies show preferences for attractive faces
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:May 16, 1987
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