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Caring for Infants Is All in the (Woman’s) Eyes

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Men and women pay attention to babies differently

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Human infants require a lot of care, and our evolution owes a lot of how well, and how long we take, to raise our offspring. So, it’s very important that not only parents pay close attention to their young children, it’s also evolutionary important that extended family members (grandparents, siblings, even friends) can give their attention to another person’s child.

A study from Penn State University and Michigan State University has found that the way we pay attention to infants (particularly someone else’s) varies according to our gender. Rodrigo Cardenas, a psychologist at Penn State, and his team discovered that all adults—even without children—pay more attention to infants in general. But specifically, women show a greater bias toward infants and provide more stable and stronger attention to them than do men.

The study helps us better understand how certain psychological mechanisms (such as a baby’s “cute” and attractive appearance) trigger reactions in humans that boost greater degrees of care, both among parents and non-parents. The study may also help in the development of assessment tools that could predict whether someone has good or poor care-giving skills.

The researchers evaluated the actions of 32 male and 31 female undergraduate students at Michigan State University, none of whom had children of their own. One test involved tracking eye movements of the students as they viewed front views of the faces of infants and young adults. The students also complete two questionnaires; the first asked them to rank their preference for infant-care jobs in comparison to six others, and the second asked them how they would respond to the presence of an infant in a specific social setting.

The researchers found that women looked longer at infant faces and directed their attention to an infant face more often than adult faces. Meanwhile, men looked longer at infant faces only if those faces were paired with an adult male face. On the questionnaires, women scored higher than men. The researchers suggest that men have more variable interest in infants and parental investment than women do. “Individual differences in interest in infants…are more likely to be detected in men,” the researchers wrote.

Does this mean that men are automatically bad parents? The answer might lie in the degree of participation by the man, but the researchers emphasize the importance of cooperative breeding and child-raising in humans among non-parents, including participation by men. The gleam in the eye may not be consistent, but the numbers of eyes may be more important.

Cárdenas, R., Harris, L., & Becker, M. (2013). Sex differences in visual attention toward infant faces Evolution and Human Behavior DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2013.04.001


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