Infant and Child Facial Cues of Age

Infant and child faces change with age. But at what age do they have their greatest appeal? Certainly, cultural norms and values can influence the answer to this question. However, given the emphasis of evolutionary psychology on our understanding of child facial cues, it is reasonable to consider evolutionary hypotheses regarding child facial cues and age. There are three different hypotheses, each with their own limited support:

  • Youngest Is Best- this hypothesis states that children are most helpless and vulernable when young, and so their facial cues should be most affective at influencing adults when they are young.
  • Oldest Is Best- this hypothesis states that older children have surived the risky first couple of years of life (more 0-2 yr olds die than any other age category- this is especially true in cultures without modern medicine). Because older children have surived, they are likely to continue surviving and have shown that they were tough enough to survive that early period, so they must be of good quality.
  • Age Doesn't Matter- this hypothesis states that either age cues don't matter, or adults aren't good at reading them.

    To answer these questions, we ran two different studies with children of several different ages. You can see a video clip of a child aging here. Once again using the Hypothetical Adoption Paradigm, we found that adults were most interested in adopting younger children.

    This graph shows a clear, significant, negative relationship between age and adoption preference. That is, adults prefer to adopt younger children. However, the obvious challenge is that adults prefer to adopt younger children not simply because their facial cues are more attractive/powerful, but because of socialization reasons (e.g., easier bonding). To answer this challenge, look at the shape of the cuteness relationship below.

    This graph shows virtually the identical pattern as adoption preference. Cuteness shouldn't be influence by the same social issues as adoption preference (e.g., easier bonding). So this shows that child facial cues appear to be stronger when younger, providing support for Hypothesis 1 above. These results were repeated in both experiments. The final question remaining is: do younger faces also appear healthier? That would be blending Hypotheses 1 & 2.

    No, they do not. Younger faces are rated by adults to be less healthy-looking than older faces. This clinches the support for Hypothesis 1. Child facial cues are stronger when children are younger, presumably because when they are younger they are both more vulnerable to danger and in greater need of general assistance.

    Created November 2010