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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

They Have the Cutest Little Baby Faces

June 12, 1995|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Having a baby face never hurt Babe Ruth, the baseball great whose fans readily excused his reckless behavior. Or George (Baby Face) Nelson, the Chicago mobster who, well, got away with murder.

But those guys surely never got called cute, or any of its humiliating variations. OK endearments for a puppy, but not a self-respecting adult.

Researchers have found that baby-faced people--defined by scientists as having round faces, saucer eyes, thin eyebrows and small nose bridges--are perceived as physically weak and submissive but lovable, trustworthy and well suited for jobs requiring skills that match those biases (teachers, secretaries and support jobs).

Leslie Zebrowitz, a psychology professor at Brandeis University who has studied the subject since the 1980s, has dubbed the phenom "the baby-face overgeneralization effect." (Strained peas, anyone?)

"We're strongly attuned to what real babies look like," she says. "You can't help but talk to a baby in a baby voice. Some of these responses are [inspired by] a baby's facial configuration, which elicits protection responses, desire to cuddle and nurture. Something similar is going on for baby-faced adults."

Zebrowitz and other researchers offer reams of evidence in studies looking at the treatment of baby-faced people in the work force, baby-faced children by parents, and baby-faced litigants in legal decisions.

In one study, 64 undergraduates evaluated applicants for jobs at a day-care center. Baby-faced men and women in general were favored for a teaching job, whereas men in general or mature-faced women were seen as stronger candidates to be director. The more qualified the applicants, the more pronounced the preference--suggesting that women and baby-faced applicants are more severely discriminated against when applying for higher-status jobs.

"You end up in jobs, especially if you're a woman, that require traits associated with baby-faced people and may even end up with a bias that prohibits job promotions," Zebrowitz says.

With parents, she found that more brain-taxing chores were assigned to mature-faced 11-year-olds than to their baby-faced peers. Baby-faced kids' misdeeds were less likely to be seen as intentional.

"Mature-faced children may be unable to live up to parents' expectations. Because their unsatisfactory behavior is sometimes perceived as more intentional, they may receive harsher discipline."

Judges also appear to be party to the prejudice. Zebrowitz studied more than 500 small claims-court cases. Only 40% of baby-faced litigants were found at fault when a transgression was intentional, compared to 90% of those involving mature-faced people.

Baby-faced litigants were more likely to be found at fault if a transgression's underlying cause was negligence. (What baby remembers to unplug the iron or shut off the coffee maker before absent-mindedly toddling off?)

But what happens when baby-faced people behave in ways contradicting those trait expectations? If the behavior is negative, people's reaction is more punitive. And if the behavior is positive, people react by heaping on the praise. Studies show that baby-faced soldiers who act valorously are more likely to get rewards compared to mature-faced soldiers.

Attractive infants (read: baby-faced) are treated better by moms than less attractive infants. Even babies prefer baby faces. When Zebrowitz showed 6-month-old infants photos of faces, she found that they looked longer at baby-faced faces. Maybe this explains why today's pudgy-faced Mickey Mouse seems more appealing than the original, thinner Mickey.

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