Category: Babies

Do infant dummies (pacifiers) impede the emotional connection between adult and baby?

Dummies (known as pacifiers in the US) can calm a crying baby in seconds, so their appeal is obvious. However, a new study warns there could be a price to pay. Magdalena Rychlowska and her colleagues claim that because dummies obscure babies’ faces, they interfere with the way that adults respond to babies’ emotions.

The researchers used electrodes to record the facial muscles of 29 women (average age 21; two of them were mothers) while they looked at photographs of two young babies expressing happiness, sadness, anger or a neutral emotion. Sometimes the babies had dummies in their mouths; other times didn’t. Also, some of the photos featured a white square superimposed over the baby’s mouth region. This last condition was to control for any influence of the sight of a dummy, beyond its obscuring effect. As well as having their facial activity recorded, the participants also rated the intensity of the emotions shown by the babies.

When the women looked at happy babies with a dummy in their mouth (or when a white square was superimposed over the babies’ mouth region) they exhibited less activity in their Zygomaticus muscle, which pulls the mouth into a smile. In other words, they showed less mirroring of the babies’ happiness. When the babies had a dummy, or a white square covered their mouth region, the women also rated the babies’ happiness to be less intense. The presence of a dummy was no more interfering than the white square, which suggests the effect of the dummy was purely due to its visually obscuring effect, not to any cultural or emotional assumptions the women may have made.

What about when the babies expressed sadness and anger? The women’s corrugator frowning muscles were just as active when they looked at sad and angry babies whether the babies had a dummy or not, and irrespective of the presence of a white square. However, the women rated the babies’ sadness as less intense when the babies had a dummy or when a white square was superimposed over their mouth area.

The researchers said their results are important because they show how the use of babies’ dummies can interfere with emotional resonance between adult and baby. “Resonance with adult perceivers allows to infants to gain emotional understanding and develop mentalizing abilities,” they said. They also noted: “…[P]erceivers may find interactions with infants using a pacifier less enjoyable and less stimulating.” The new results also build on past research by the same team, which found amount of dummy use in infancy was associated (in boys only) with less automatic facial mimicry at age 6 to 7. Bear in mind though, that this past research did not prove dummy use was responsible for the later reductions in mimicry.

There are some obvious problems with this new study – most obviously the reliance on static photographic stimuli, and also the fact that the research didn’t involve mothers or fathers interacting with their own offspring. It’s also worth highlighting that the use of infant dummies has been associated with positive outcomes, most notably reduced risk of sudden infant death when used during sleep. Some parents might also counter the current findings with the argument that, by soothing their babies’ distress, strategic use of dummies actually has emotional benefits for their babies.


Rychlowska, M., Korb, S., Brauer, M., Droit-Volet, S., Augustinova, M., Zinner, L., & Niedenthal, P. (2014). Pacifiers Disrupt Adults’ Responses to Infants’ Emotions Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36 (4), 299-308 DOI: 10.1080/01973533.2014.915217

further reading
How infants affect how much their carers engage with them
Systematic evidence of fake crying by a baby
What makes a baby smile?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Psychologists use baby-cam to study infants’ exposure to faces

An infant sporting the baby-cam, worn upside down to ensure the camera
was level with the eyebrows. Image reproduced with permission of N. Sugden.

What does the world look like from a baby’s perspective? In the first research of its kind, psychologists in Canada have analysed hours of video footage taken from small cameras worn by babies on their heads. Nicole Sugden and her colleagues were particularly interested in the babies’ exposure to faces, to find out whether the kind of faces they were exposed to might explain a developmental process known as “perceptual narrowing”. In the context of face recognition, this is the finding that babies gradually lose their ability to distinguish between other-race faces and other-species faces.

The researchers recruited the parents of 14 1-month-olds and 16 3-month-olds. There was an even mix of girl and boy babies, and the families were of a variety of ethnic backgrounds including Caucasian, Southeast Asian, and Black-Caucasian. For a two-week period the parents were asked to place the smiley faced camera, attached to a headband, onto their baby’s head whenever he or she was awake.

In total, the researchers obtained nearly 20 hours of footage from the 1-month-olds and over 25 hours footage from the 3-month-olds. This difference reflects the fact that the older babies were awake an average of 9 hours a day, while the younger babies were awake an average of 7 hours daily. The footage was varied, taking in the home environment and outdoors, including situations where adults were playing with their babies but also many other contexts such as riding in a stroller, at parent groups, and out at a restaurant.

Sugden and her team found evidence the babies experienced “massive” exposure to faces, accounting for 25 per cent of their waking lives. They also found a dramatic bias towards babies being exposed to own-race faces – 96 per cent of all faces matched this category. This is despite the fact that the research was conducted in Toronto, a multicultural metropolitan city with a diverse population. The researchers said this overwhelming exposure to own-race faces could be responsible for the fact that by three-months of age, babies already show a preference for looking at own-race faces. By six months they are already starting to lose their ability to distinguish other-race faces.

The baby-cam footage also revealed that the babies were overwhelmingly exposed to female faces (accounting for 70 per cent of all face exposure) – which likely explains babies’ usual preference for female faces – and to adult-age faces (accounting for 81 per cent of all face exposure).

This research did not directly address whether the experiences of individual babies led to specific changes in their perceptual abilities and preferences. However, the findings are compatible with this idea. “This study is the first to document the quantity and quality of infants’ natural daily face exposure from the infants perspective,” the researchers said, “and offers strong support for the idea that experience drives the development of the face processing system.”


Sugden NA, Mohamed-Ali MI, and Moulson MC (2014). I spy with my little eye: Typical, daily exposure to faces documented from a first-person infant perspective. Developmental psychobiology, 56 (2), 249-61 PMID: 24285109

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Systematic evidence of fake crying by a baby

Image: Tucia / Flickr

Crying is an important survival behaviour for babies – the world is informed that they are in distress and need prompt attention. Many parents also describe what looks like fake crying by their infants. It seems as though the child is pretending to be in distress merely as a way to get attention. Some people doubt that babies can really be capable of such deception, but now Hiroko Nakayama in Japan has published the results from six months’ intensive study of crying by two babies, and she reports persuasive evidence of fake crying by one of them.

Nakayama filmed the babies in their homes for sixty minutes twice a month, for six months. The videos were then carefully coded by two researchers in five-second segments. Sixty-eight episodes of crying were documented for Baby R, aged 7 months at the study start; and 34 episodes for Baby M, aged 9 months at the study start.

The analysis focused on the presence of positive and negative affect (emotion) in the minutes and seconds prior to and after episodes of crying. All of Baby M’s crying episodes were preceded by clear evidence of distress and negative affect, as betrayed by grimaces, vocalisations and downturned lips.

Just over 98 per cent of Baby R’s crying episodes were also preceded by negative affect, but there was a single instance at 11 months where her crying immediately followed positive emotion (indicated by smiling or laughing), and then positive emotion abruptly followed the bout of crying. The mother recognised this behaviour as fake crying, and the emotional analysis appeared to confirm this. “Infant R appeared to cry deliberately to get her mother’s attention,” said Nakayama, “[then] she showed smile immediately after her mother came closer.”

People might have a negative impression of “fake crying” said Nakayama, but they shouldn’t do. It attracts the attention of the care-giver, and “such individual interaction contributes greatly not only to an infant’s social development but also to their emotional development. Infants who are capable of fake crying might communicate successfully with their caregivers in this way on a daily basis. Fake crying could add much to their relationships.”

Another insight from this research included the finding that most of the time the babies’ crying was followed by continued negative affect. Positive affect only returned gradually with care-giver physical contact, or, in the case of Baby R, a combination of physical contact and eye contact.

It can only be speculation with such a small sample, but one possible reason for more frequent crying in Baby R, and her use of fake crying, is that she had two siblings, whereas Baby M was an only child. Baby R may therefore have needed to compete more for her mother’s attention. “Siblings can enrich social interactions at home and increase their variety,” said Nakayama. “Such environmental factors are known to stimulate the development of communication skills of infants.”


Nakayama H (2013). Changes in the affect of infants before and after episodes of crying. Infant behavior & development, 36 (4), 507-12 PMID: 23732624

further reading
Does crying really make you feel better?
Differences in the way teen and adult mothers respond to baby cries
Why do children hide by covering their eyes?

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

Nine-month-olds prefer looking at unattractive (read: normal) male bodies

When faces were hidden or schematic, 9-month-olds preferred looking at the “unattractive” male bodies

Out-of-shape new dads around the world take heart – your little munchkin thinks your fuller figure is nicer to look at than the ripped, six-pack-boasting torsos so often seen in magazines and after-shave adverts.

Michelle Delaney at the University of Sheffield and her colleagues presented dozens of babies with pictures of pairs of Caucasian male bodies wearing only underwear: one was always “unattractive” with a fuller waist and smaller chest; the other was always more muscular, with a V-shaped torso, a larger chest and narrower waist. “The men with attractive bodies were models, and the men with unattractive bodies were friends of the experimenters,” the researchers explained. It wasn’t stated whether these volunteers remained friends with the researchers after reading the descriptions used in the study.

Videos were taken of the babies’ eye gaze, and after they’d spent a total of ten seconds looking at one pair of pictures, a new pair was shown. The key test was whether the babies would choose to spend more time looking at the V-shaped “mesomorphic” male bodies (rated earlier as more attractive by hundreds of adult male and female participants) or at the less attractive, normal-shaped male bodies.

Nine-month-olds showed a clear preference for looking at the unattractive, normal male bodies, but only in versions of the experiment where the men’s faces were obscured. If the faces were shown, no body preference was found. This might simply be because of babies’ well-known attraction to faces, which may have distracted them from the bodies.

Babies aged 3.5 months and 6 months showed no preference for one male body type or the other. A habituation test (based around the idea of babies finding a new type of image interesting to look at) showed that 3.5-month-olds couldn’t tell the difference between the two body types. Six-month-olds could, but they didn’t show a preference.

Why should nine-month-olds prefer looking at cuddlier-shaped men? Delaney and her colleagues think the preference probably arises from what babies are used to encountering in their daily lives – after all, they said, a recent NHS survey in England found that “66 per cent of men were overweight or obese”. A related explanation is that the babies prefer female-looking bodies (perhaps because they see their mother more often), and male bodies with more fat have a closer resemblance to a female body.

The emergence of the babies’ preference for a particular male body type between 6 and 9 months complements past research suggesting that it is around the age of 9 months that babies typically begin to show a sophisticated recognition of the human form – for example, they are sensitive to the normal proportions of the arms, legs and neck.

 “The current study suggests that during infancy, preferences for particular human body shapes reflect level of exposure and resultant familiarity rather than culturally defined stereotypes of attractiveness,” the researchers said. “Precisely when and how children develop preferences for adult-defined attractive bodies remains a question for future research.” They added that it would be interesting to repeat the research to see if nine-month-olds’ preferences vary with the differing average body sizes across cultures – for example in Japan versus Samoa.


Heron-Delaney, M., Quinn, P., Lee, K., Slater, A., & Pascalis, O. (2013). Nine-month-old infants prefer unattractive bodies over attractive bodies. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 115 (1), 30-41 DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2012.12.008

Image reproduced with the permission of the first author.

–Further reading–
Lads’ mags and feelings of physical inadequacy – single men most at risk

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

At what age do babies enter the uncanny valley?

In the 1970s, the roboticist Masahiro Mori noticed a curious phenomenon. As robots became more human-like, their appeal increased but only up to a point. When their human likeness became too realistic (but still not perfect), their appeal plunged. Mori nicknamed this abrupt aversion “the uncanny valley“, in reference to the shape of the graph mapping human-likeness and appeal. Are we born with this aversion to the almost-real or does it emerge later?

To find out, David Lewkowicz and Asif Ghazanfar presented nearly a hundred infants (aged between 6 to 12 months) with pairs of faces, to see which they would look at for longer. In the first study, the babies were shown a human face alongside a cartoon face (an “avatar”) with enlarged goggle-eyes. The researchers said adults would find the avatar uncanny and would avoid looking at it. The key finding here was that six-month-olds spent more time looking at the uncanny avatar, whereas the twelve-month-olds, like adults, spent more time looking at the human face. Based on this dramatic contrast in preference, Lewkowicz and Ghazanfar said the uncanny valley effect emerges gradually between six and twelve months of age.

What was it about the faces that provoked this change in preference in the older babies? In two further studies, the researchers presented the babies with either a goggle-eyed uncanny avatar alongside a more realistic avatar face with normal-sized eyes, or with a human face alongside the realistic avatar. In the first case, all the babies, from 6 to 12 months, spent more time looking at the realistic avatar. In the second case, the babies of all ages spent equal amounts of time looking at the two faces.

These results suggest that none of the babies could distinguish between the realistic avatar and a real human face, and that the older babies in the first study, and all the babies in the second study, must therefore have been using the enlarged eyes to distinguish the goggle-eyed avatar from a human face or realistic avatar face, respectively.

Lewkowicz and Ghazanfar said that the aversion to the goggle-eyed uncanny avatar likely emerged in the older babies as a consequence of their growing expertise with processing human faces, and their association of human faces with positive consequences. However, the older babies’ expertise was obviously far from complete because they were unable to tell a realistic avatar from a human face. By 12 months, they can spot uncanny features, it seems, but not a synthetic face. “This limitation, particularly at the end of the first year of life, is interesting,” the researchers said, “because infants of this age have already become sufficiently specialised for human faces that they no longer discriminate the faces of other species and of other races [a process known as perceptual narrowing]”.

This study builds on recent research showing evidence of the uncanny valley effect in monkeys. From an evolutionary perspective, the researchers said their results were consistent with the idea that the uncanny valley effect emerges as a result of early developmental experience and was “a useful behavioural adaptation because it enables observers to quickly detect anomalies (e.g. disease) and/or aesthetic value (i.e. beauty) of a face.”

Critics of this research may feel that it is rather a leap to assume that the uncanny feeling experienced by adults is felt by babies in any way, just because they look at a face more or less. Moreover, the classic uncanny valley effect is about almost-real robots and faces. This study arguably complicates the issue somewhat by introducing specific abnormal features onto synthetic faces, therefore making them look unreal. Whilst it’s been shown that abnormal features, such as enlarged eyes, are perceived as uncanny by adults, this could be a different effect from the discomfort caused by not-quite-perfect hyper-realistic entities.


Lewkowicz, D., and Ghazanfar, A. (2012). The development of the uncanny valley in infants Developmental Psychobiology, 54 (2), 124-132 DOI: 10.1002/dev.20583

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

When depressed mothers give birth to thriving babies

Shelves of evidence show the long-term, adverse consequences for an embryo of having a mother who is stressed or malnourished during pregnancy. For instance, there’s medical data showing that underweight newborn babies are more at risk of heart diseases and other illnesses in adulthood.

According to the “thrifty phenotype” hypothesis, this is because the child is born with a body that’s primed for malnutrition. When the baby instead encounters plentiful resources, its metabolism suffers as a result, leading to a long-term increased risk of stroke, heart disease and diabetes.

But what if the prenatal environment were a reliable predictor of the world that’s to come? A surprising new study shows that adverse prenatal circumstances, in the form of having a depressed mother, are actually beneficial if that same context endures after birth. The finding is consistent with the “predictive-adaptive response model”, which says that adversity in-utero can have adaptive advantages if adversity is also encountered after birth.

Curt Sandman and his team measured the depression levels of 221 healthy women during their pregnancy and for twelve months after their children were born. The babies were subsequently categorised into four groups. There were two “concordant” groups, for whom the environment was the same prenatally and post-natally, as in their mother was either depression-free in both phases or she had depression in both phases. And there were two “discrepant” groups, for whom the prenatal and postnatal environments were different, as in their mother had depression in one phase but not the other.

Here’s the take-home finding: babies in the concordant groups exhibited superior scores on mental development at 3 and 6 months of age, and superior psychomotor development at 6 months, compared with the discrepant babies. Crucially, this was the case for both concordant groups. In other words, for babies whose mothers were depressed postnatally, it was those whose mothers were also depressed during pregnancy who fared better. This counterintuitive finding appears to contradict the received wisdom that adversity during pregnancy is only ever associated with adverse outcomes.

Zeroing in on the timings, it was specifically the consistency or not between a mother’s depression state at 25 weeks’ gestation and her depression state postnatally that had associations with the babies’ developmental outcomes. This makes sense because past research has found mothers’ depression at 25 weeks’ gestation (as opposed to at other times) to be most strongly related with their emotional state postnatally. The researchers said it’s as if the unborn child is “most sensitive to maternal signals of adversity when those signals are the most predictive of future outcomes.”

  ResearchBlogging.orgSandman, C., Davis, E., and Glynn, L. (2012). Prescient Human Fetuses Thrive. Psychological Science, 23 (1), 93-100 DOI: 10.1177/0956797611422073

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Babies can tell whether you made a mistake or not from the tone of your voice

For decades, psychologists have been trying to find out when and how children develop the ability to step outside of themselves and understand other people’s minds. Piaget, the great Swiss developmental psychologist, had children study a model of the mountains around Geneva and describe what the scene would look like from another perspective. His results led him to conclude that children younger than about seven are stuck with an ego-centric perspective. Since then, with ever more ingenious techniques, psychologists have demonstrated that even infants as young as one year old have a rudimentary sense that other people have a mind, perspective and intentions of their own. Betty Repacholi and Alison Gopnik, for example, observed how 18-month-olds would choose to feed an adult disgusting broccoli, rather than yummy crackers, if they’d seen the adult enjoying the dreaded vegetable earlier.

Now Elena Sakkalou and Merideth Gattis have performed a study looking specifically at the role of prosody in the ability of infants to infer whether an adult intended to perform an action or made a mistake. Prosody refers to the sing-song, rise and fall of speech – its tempo and fluctuating pitch. It’s the quality of speech we can hear through a wall or ceiling. We might not be able to distinguish any of our next-door neighbour’s actual words, but we can still get a sense of the mood and emotion of what they’re saying.

This study combines what we know about the importance of prosody to children’s learning, with what we know about their emerging ability to think about other people’s minds and intentions. For example, past research has shown how mothers use prosody to convey approval and prohibition, and that 5-month-olds smile more in response to the former.

Sakkalou and Gattis first replicated an earlier study by showing that infants aged 14 to 18-months can use an adult’s vocal utterances, specifically including the words “There” vs. “Whoops”, to infer whether they intended an action or not. Twenty-eight toddlers saw an experimenter perform two actions on a toy (for example, pushing it or rolling it), one of which was accompanied by the word “There” as if the action were intended; the other by “Whoops”. Given a chance to handle the toy themselves, the infants were more likely to imitate the action that was accompanied by the word “There” – as if they knew that it had been a deliberate action.

Next, Sakkalou and Gattis analysed the prosody of the experimenter utterances: “There” and “Whoops”. The former was characterised by higher amplitude, longer duration and falling pitch; the latter by a rising pitch contour. The earlier experiment was then replicated with 56 more toddlers (mean age 16 months), but this time the words “There” and “Whoops” were replaced with the Greek words “Nato” and “Ochi” (or vice versa). Crucially, the words signifying a mistake or intentional action were always delivered with the prosodic profile established earlier as being associated with a mistake or intended action. The toddlers were raised in English-speaking homes so there’s no way they could have known the meaning of the words. Nonetheless, the toddlers older than 16 months still imitated more “intentional” actions than accidental actions on the toys, thus suggesting strongly they were able to use the way the words were said to infer which actions were intended and which were accidental.

It’s important to note that the “mistake” vs. “intent” prosodic patterns in the current study do not map simply onto approval/ disapproval – they were more complex, which could explain why it was only the older toddlers who could interpret the difference. This fits with other research showing that infants’ preference for different types of vocalisations changes as they develop, with older infants preferring prosodic patterns that direct their attention whereas younger infants prefer comforting prosody.

“We propose that infants’ understanding of vocal patterns supports their growing understanding of intentions,” Gattis told The Digest. “Together these two forms of understanding shape the development of imitation and communication.”


Sakkalou, E., and Gattis, M. (2012). Infants infer intentions from prosody. Cognitive Development, 27 (1), 1-16 DOI: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2011.08.003

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Brain training for babies actually works (short term, at least)

Products designed to give babies and young children an educational headstart are hugely popular but they’re mostly backed up by weak science. In some cases, for example with educational DVDs, there’s even evidence of potential harm to language development, albeit that this evidence has been challenged by the creators of the DVDs.

Meanwhile, research with adults suggests that so-called brain training exercises (puzzles and memory and attention tasks on a computer) rarely lead to general intellectual benefits. Instead people just get better on the specific training tasks they complete.

Given this background, the prospects for brain training for babies look decidedly shaky. And yet in a new study, a team led by Sam Wass has shown brain training exercises for babies (focused on attention) led to widespread cognitive benefits over a two-week period. “To our knowledge, this is the first report of distal transfer of training effects following cognitive training in participants younger than 4 years old,” they write.

Wass and his colleagues invited 42 healthy, 11-month-old babies to their lab five times over two weeks. Whilst there, half the babies undertook an average of 77 mins of training in screen-based tasks that varied in difficulty according to each baby’s performance. The other babies spent the same time watching TV clips and animations.

The four attentional training tasks all required the babies to use their direction of gaze to create various effects. For example, in the butterfly task, so long as the baby fixated on it, a butterfly “flew” across the screen as distractors (e.g. house) scrolled in the other direction. As soon as the baby stopped fixating the butterfly, the distractors disappeared and the butterfly remained stationary. In another “elephant” task, the babies were rewarded with animations when they succeeded in fixating an elephant rather than a similarly sized distractor.

Compared with the control group, the babies who undertook the training showed improvements in basic lab measures of cognitive performance, completed at the beginning and end of the two-week training period, including: task-switching ability (a sign of cognitive control), in sustained attention, faster eye movement reaction times and quicker attention disengagement. The effect sizes ranged from .54 up to 1.06 (generally considered medium to large). The researchers argued this was unlikely to be simply due to greater motivation in the trained babies – for example, the improvements to sustained attention were larger towards “interesting stimuli”, indicating a selectivity in the effects. The researchers were surprised that there were no working memory benefits, but said this could be because working memory “is weak at this early age”.

In free play in front of a puppet theatre, somewhat paradoxically (given their increased ability at sustained attention), the trained babies showed a trend toward more, shorter glances. The researchers reasoned this could be because the training had given the babies’ greater flexible control of their attention, depending on context. This is an important result because past research has linked this gaze style at 9 months with superior language development at 31 months. In general, Wass and his team said attentional control could be a “tool for learning” that aids the later acquisition of other skills.

” … It is striking that we found changes following briefer training periods than those used by other studies [with older children],” the researchers said. ” … Further work is required to assess whether this is because infant brains are more plastic and more readily amenable to training or because eye-gaze contingent training is more immersive in comparison with the point-and-click computer interface [using a mouse] used by other groups.”

Wass and his colleagues conceded that more research was needed to assess whether the observed training effects would last into the medium and long term. A possibility is that training effects in babies are incredibly fast, but also quick to dissipate. Regardless, for the time being, this is a study that’s bound to excite competitive parents and educational entrepreneurs alike.

ResearchBlogging.orgWass, S., Porayska-Pomsta, K., and Johnson, M. (2011). Training Attentional Control in Infancy. Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.08.004

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Babies prefer Picasso

Still life with guitar by Picasso [c.]

Psychologists who study art appreciation have their work cut out. How does one begin to untangle cultural influences from more basic perceptual factors – the cachet from the contours? Well one way is to study babies, because they’re obviously too young to know about cultural fads and artistic reputations.

Trix Cacchione and her team at the University of Zurich presented nine-month old babies with paintings by the cubist painter Picasso and the impressionist Monet. Their first aim was to see if the babies could tell the difference between the two painting styles. They did this by continually presenting the babies with different paintings by one of the artists until they grew bored (known as “habituation”) and then seeing if the babies treated the sight of a painting by the other artist as somehow different, and therefore more worthy of their attention. The finding here was that babies who’d habituated to Monet were thereafter more attracted to a painting by Picasso, as revealed when new paintings by each artist were presented together side by side. There was clearly something novel about a Picasso painting that they perceived and found stimulating, which led them to look at it more. However, the reverse wasn’t true. Babies habituated to Picasso preferred to look at yet another Picasso painting rather than enjoy the greater novelty of a Monet.

Next the researchers checked the babies could distinguish between different paintings by the same artist. They found that babies habituated to one particular Picasso were attracted to a new Picasso more than a repeat. Ditto for Monet – the babies preferred a new Monet to a familiar old one.

So why did the babies prefer to look at yet another Picasso, even after they’d seen loads of them, rather than enjoy the novelty of a Monet? The implication is that the appeal of a Picasso overpowers the novelty of a Monet. There’s clearly something about Picasso, but what is it?

Cacchione’s team looked at a whole range of factors: Picasso’s use of vivid colours, sharp contours, and his use of squares and other figurative elements (Monet pictures, by contrast, are more subtle and realistic). But each time the researchers removed one of these elements, for example by using black and white pictures of the paintings, the babies still preferred Picasso.

The most likely explanation then is that it’s something about these elements in combination that appeals to babies. One further factor, which the current study didn’t look at, is luminance or “perceived lightness”. The researchers said it’s possible that babies prefer Picasso because of the greater luminance of his paintings. Crucially, luminance is processed mostly by the dorsal visual stream (the “where pathway”). This would fit with the idea that babies don’t yet have a fully developed visual system – in particular the ventral stream (also known as the “what pathway”) is immature.

“Many of Monet’s paintings have so little luminance contrast that it is impossible to recognise their elements on the basis of dorsal processing,” the researchers said. “It is possible that infants preferred paintings by Picasso, because they were easier to process and afforded the most stimulation to their still developing visual system.”

A final possibility is that there’s something about Monet that babies don’t like, rather than there being something particularly appealing about Picasso. Only further studies with more babies and different artists will get to the truth of why there appears to be something about Picasso.

ResearchBlogging.orgCacchione, T., Möhring, W., and Bertin, E. (2011). What is it about Picasso? Infants’ categorical and discriminatory abilities in the visual arts. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts DOI: 10.1037/a0024129

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Men are as motivated by cute baby faces as women

Cuteness as an evolutionary adaptation

Both Charles Darwin and Konrad Lorenz, the pioneering ethologist, wrote about the appeal of baby faces as a possible adaptive mechanism. They surmised that babies’ perceived cuteness could be nature’s way of ensuring the little terrors get looked after. Now a team led by Morten Kringelbach and Christine Parsons has shown that men are as motivated by baby faces as women. Kringelbach is the same researcher who a few years ago showed that looking at baby faces, as opposed to adult faces, is associated with a distinct pattern of brain activity in the orbitofrontal cortex – a kind of neural “cuteness response”.

For the new study, 31 men and 37 women (average age 20 years), all with limited experience of babies, looked at photographs of the faces of 70 babies (aged 3 to 12 months), each shown for five seconds, and rated their attractiveness. These results conformed to cultural stereotypes about gender differences, with the women tending to rate the babies as more attractive than the men (no such gender difference emerged for the rating of adult faces). A desire to conform to gender roles could have played a role here. However, both men and women rated as more attractive those baby faces that most closely conformed to the cute ideal: a large rounded forehead, large low-set eyes, a short and narrow nose and a small chin.

In another part of the experiment, performed either before or after the attractiveness ratings, the participants were able to press a button repeatedly to control how long each baby face remained on the screen. This was taken as a measure of how much the participants were motivated to look at the faces. In this case the men scored just the same as the women. Moreover, for both men and women it was those faces that most closely conformed to the cute ideal that they made the effort to look at for longer.

“Our findings indicate that both men and women appraise what is colloquially described as a ‘cute’ unfamiliar infant positively, and they will work to see that infant for longer than an infant with less ‘cute’ features,” the researchers said. “This is in line with previous studies showing that ‘cuter’ infants are rated as more friendly, cheerful, and likeable and are rated as more ‘adoptable’.”

ResearchBlogging.orgParsons, C., Young, K., Kumari, N., Stein, A., and Kringelbach, M. (2011). The Motivational Salience of Infant Faces Is Similar for Men and Women. PLoS ONE, 6 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0020632

This post was written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.