A new study on U.S. undergraduates explored how variations in facial features change perceptions of readiness to provide parental care to children. Results showed that female faces were perceived as more ready to provide parental care than male faces. Male faces were seen as more motivated to protect offspring. The study was published in Personal Relationships.
Throughout human evolution, finding a mate capable of fulfilling one’s reproductive goals was crucial in ensuring that one will have offspring and that these offspring will survive into adulthood. The following generations were all offspring of individuals who were successful in this task. This created the selective pressure that led to the evolution of a cognitive system to assess the abilities necessary for having and raising children in others.
An important part of this system depends on the recognition of physical cues i.e., physical characteristics that indicate that a person is a suitable mate for having and raising children. These physical cues are often certain facial and bodily features, such as healthiness or heritable fitness.
Beyond these two traits, physical cues may provide information about whether a person would be willing and capable to make a long-term parental investment, necessary for raising children. For example, having more body fat might be indicative of men’s interest in fostering care for children, while body strength might indicate that a man is capable of protecting them.
Study author Kaitlyn N. Boykin and her colleagues wanted to explore what parental motivations people assign to faces based on how masculine or feminine they look. They manipulated a set of pictures of male or female faces to make them pronouncedly masculine or feminine i.e., having more male-typical or female-typical features. In this way, they created three versions of each face – original, feminized and masculinized.
The researchers expected that feminized male and female faces would be seen as more motivated to nurture their offspring, but that this perception would be more pronounced for female faces. Thus, feminized female faces would be seen as the most willing to provide nurture to offspring. On the other hand, study authors expected that male faces that were made more masculine would be seen as the most willing to protect offspring.
Participants were 244 undergraduate students from a public university in the Southeastern United States. 152 participants were women and 84% reported being heterosexual. Participants viewed a series of female and male faces, 12 in total, edited in the ways previously described. Participants were asked to assess the perceived parental motivation of each person in the pictures — i.e., their nurturance (e.g., “A newborn baby would curl its hand around this person’s finger”, “Babies melt this person’s heart”) and willingness to protect (e.g., “This person would hurt anyone who was a threat to a child”).
As predicted, the feminized faces of females were rated as the most nurturing, followed by the original, unedited female faces, and the masculinized female faces. Overall, female faces were rated as more nurturing than male faces, regardless of editing. When protectiveness ratings were considered, female faces again had higher average scores than male faces, but the differences were very small.
When sex of the rater was taken into account, results showed that male participants perceived female faces as more effective parents than males, both when nurturing and protection were considered. Female raters gave similar ratings.
When different parenting motives were compared (nurturance vs. protection), results showed that female faces were perceived as more motivated to nurture than protect children, while male faces were considered more motivated to protect than nurture. Making faces of both genders more feminized lead to participants rating such faces as more willing to provide nurturance. No such differences were found when protection was considered.
“Indeed, we found that femininized facial targets were perceived to possess a greater ability to nurture offspring. Conversely, male targets were perceived as more motivated to protect, as opposed to nurture, offspring,” the study authors concluded.
The study contributes to the scientific knowledge about social perception. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, all participants were students. Results on other populations might not be the same. Additionally, motivation was assessed solely using static pictures of faces. This is profoundly different from how such perception works in real life situations.
The study, “Perceptions of inferred parental ability through sexually dimorphic facial features”, was authored by Kaitlyn N. Boykin, Mitch Brown, Kelsey Drea, and Donald Sacco.