New Study Shows Women Find It Difficult to Look at Babies with Facial Defects
Cited: AP Medical
It is amazing that women have a harder time than men looking at babies with facial defects in a puzzling new research study. Psychiatrists are now studying perceptions of beauty and expected women to spend more time than men admiring extra cute photographs of babies. However, the study that was published raises more questions than it could answer with the psychiatrists from the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, which is home to the nation’s oldest and foremost research program in a psychiatric hospital setting.
Some of the most significant discoveries in the field of psychiatry have been made at McLean, shedding new light on the causes of and treatments for many complex neuropsychiatric disorders. To this day, no other psychiatric hospital or university department of psychiatry contains a comparable range of basic laboratory, brain imaging and clinical research facilities dedicated to the study of major brain disorders. McLean’s nationally prominent research programs are devoted to clarifying the roots, diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric illnesses that affect millions.
First the background: The McLean team already had studied men and women looking at photos of adults’ faces on a computer screen. They rated facial beauty, and could do various keystrokes to watch the photos longer. A keystroke count showed men put three times more effort into watching beautiful women as women put into watching handsome men.
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Lead researcher Dr. Igor Elman wondered what else might motivate women. Enter the new baby study. This time 13 men and 14 women were shown 80 photos of babies, 30 of whom had abnormal facial features such as a cleft palate, Down syndrome or crossed eyes. Participants rated each baby’s attractiveness on a scale of zero to 100, and used keystrokes to make the photo stay on the screen longer or disappear faster.
Women pressed the keys 2.5 times more than men to make photos of babies with the facial abnormalities disappear, researchers reported in PLoS One, a journal of the Public Library of Science. That’s even though they rated those babies no less attractive than the men had.
“They had this subliminal motivation to get rid of the faces,” said Elman, who questions whether “we’re designed by nature to invest all the resources into healthy-looking kids.”
Both genders spent equal time and effort looking at photos of the normal babies. The study couldn’t explain the gender disparity. Elman noted that previous work has linked child abandonment and neglect to abnormal appearance, and even asked if the finding might challenge the concept of unconditional maternal love.
That’s too far-reaching a conclusion, cautioned Dr. Steven Grant of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funded the study. The work is part of broader research into how we normally form attachments and what can make those attachments go awry, work that tests if what people say matches what they do.
“Common sense would tell you one thing,” Grant said. “This doesn’t fit with common sense. It raises a question.”
The Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Elman, said because the study involved a small numbers of subjects, it needs to be repeated with larger follow-up studies. These future studies should also involve brain scans of the subjects to help pinpoint how men’s and women’s brains function differently when viewing the images as well as extending or shortening the time period they view the images. The study, which also involved researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, was funded by grants from the National Institute of Drug Abuse.
My Take: To me it seems natural for anyone to look away from a child’s face that is disfigured. Guys always seem to like the grotesque so them looking away would be surprising to me. Women, on the other hand, whether they are mother or not, would look away because it is a possibility for them.
I think the reason it touches when more is because women are the ones who have babies and the thought that a baby can be born with facial disfigurement is almost too personal. I think it has something to do with the maternal instinct in women. Of course, not all women have a strong maternal instinct and they would probably not look away.
I believe there are very few women that would not look way from an image of an infant with a severe facial deformity. I think it has to do with the thought that maybe they could have a child that looks like that and it is not something that any parent would wish for. It is natural for women, and men, to wish for an perfect baby every time. Who has not seen a new mother or father counting all the toes and fingers of their newborn?