Afternoon InquisitionParentingSkepticism

AI: When Ugly Babies Attack

I’ve sometimes wondered if I’m hard to love. Oh, I don’t fret over it for long, and I’ve never really come to a conclusion about it, but sometimes in moments of loneliness or after a relationship ends, I wonder.

And if in fact I am hard to love, it’s because of the man I have become. Perhaps my personality, my attitude, and my many vices and odd peccadillos are enough to turn people away. Perhaps the culmination of those many things is what makes it hard to love me. Me, the grown man version of Sam.

But apparently it is hard to love some babies for much simpler reasons. According to this article, a new study released by Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital and published in the online journal PloS One suggests that uglier babies are harder to love.

In the study, men and women were randomly shown pictures of 50 healthy and attractive babies and 30 others with distinct facial irregularities. Each picture remained on the screen for four seconds, but the viewer could shorten that time by clicking one key or prolong it by clicking another.

Turns out, the men in the study were less likely to click off photos of unattractive babies, but clicked quite a bit to hold on to the images of the pretty ones. Women, conversely, left the keyboard alone when they were looking at pretty babies, but hurried away from the less attractive ones. 

So . . . Do you see any flaws in the study? If so, how would you improve on it? Would you even bother? Is an ugly baby really harder to love? Are you now trying to recall the nature of your early relationship with your mother?


The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Do you see any flaws in the study?
    Yes… small sample size and also… just because we don’t want to look at the “ugly” doesn’t mean we don’t love the ugly right?

    If so, how would you improve on it? Would you even bother?
    Not sure and not sure.

    Is an ugly baby really harder to love?
    I don’t think so… I think dealing with the social ideas of what is ugly can be hard to deal with.

    Also, have you ever seen a newborn? They are usually pretty freaky looking… and we “love” them right away… well usually…

    Are you now trying to recall the nature of your early relationship with your mother?
    Yes, yes I am.

  2. All I can say is-for the most part-if the baby is yours, then its the best looking baby on the face of the planet. Haven’t you heard the phrase “A face only a mother could love”?

    But, since I’m not a parent, I have no expertise. Elyse, since you’re a mother, could you chime in?

  3. @Kaylia_Marie:

    Actually, women don’t fall in love with their babies as newborns. In fact, it’s one of those stupid things that we’re taught is true… your baby is born, you look into her eyes, and you instantly fall in love. If I remember correctly, I think this only happens for something like 10-20% of women. Even for the women who think they have this amazing bond with their baby in-utero.

    For most women, it can take up to 9 weeks to really feel that bond and love. By that time, their faces have popped back out (from being vagina-smashed) and their heads have unconed.

    I had a c-section when Moose was born. There was no smooshing of the face or head. He came out gorgeous. He was a stunning newborn. I don’t mean that in an “I’m the mom” kind of way. (And he’s maintained an amazing level of cute despite his genes.)

    Much to my surprise, I bonded with him instantly. I felt completely detached from him my whole pregnancy, and really expected that wouldn’t change for weeks or months. But I saw his giant blue eyes, and I was in love. Was it because he was cute?

  4. The sample size is awfully small, and not cross cultural. And the obvious view time = love thing.

  5. I will admit up front that I’m completely biased and emotionally too connected to this subject to talk about it intelligently. My gut instinct is to beat the crap out of the person that wrote that article.

    Being the big sister of a man who was born with a cleft palate, I’m pretty pissed they would define babies with cleft palates as “ugly”.

    I was 7 when my brother was born. My parents were very worried about the way I would react to seeing that my brother was born with a birth defect. So, they explained what he would look like and all that, but I only remember half listening.

    When we got to the nursery, I could see my baby-brother in there. I remember my chest swelling up because I was so happy to have a little brother. I obviously could see that he was different, but I didn’t care. It’s like it didn’t really register in my head that being different was bad.

    Even now, when I see babies with cleft palates I don’t freak out. Instead, it reminds me of the first time I saw my brother and think to myself “Oh…he looks like my baby brother!”

    I love my brother very much and I never felt like my parents loved him less than me or my sister.

    I’d be curious to see what the results would be if they specifically tested parents of children born with birth defects.

  6. I was curious about what you all thought of this part, too:

    Of all the things driving that response, the most primal one may be evolution. Parents devote a lot of resources to raising a child — food, time, money, love — and those assets are usually in finite supply. All animals, humans included, are hardwired to spend wisely, devoting the most energy to the offspring most likely to yield the highest genetic payoff; healthy, beautiful offspring are the best bet of all. . . .

  7. This probably isn’t relevant, but given my own nature, I think I would tend to look longer at the disfigured babies. This is because of my insatiable curiousity – what caused that? what are the implications? does it affect the sight/smell/whatever? In other words, normal babies would be scientifically boring.

    I agree with previous commenters on the clear flaws in the study. I don’t think ugly babies (or ugly adults or ugly dogs or cats) are harder to love. I also don’t think ‘ugly’ is a universally definable term.

  8. @Elyse: That’s because you’re so awesome!

    @Sam Ogden: That arguement could be debated. I’ve heard (UNSUBSTANTIATED RUMOR ALERT) that cats will kill their kittens who look too much like their father, or for little or no reason at all. There have been many cases of dumpster babies-so many that states have had to make safe drop zones to discard of unwated babies. I don’t see a rhymn or reason to these. But, I don’t sit down and study them in the first place.

  9. @infinitemonkey:

    Agreed, I have heard of many examples in the animal world of mothers abandoning babies. Of course, most of those examples seem to happen at zoos / wildlife refuges, so I have to wonder if the human interference element is at play.

  10. I read this article earlier, and I’m a little surprised at how the universal response seems to focus on women turning away from babies with deformities because they don’t care about them.If it were strictly a question of “ugliness,” maybe that would be different, but some of the pictures in the study were of babies with significant facial deformities. That’s a little different from ugliness – it could be causing the children pain or suffering, if not now than possibly in the future. I would have to click quickly through those too, because I would have a hard time looking at that without being able to help them.

  11. @infinitemonkey: Yeah, I think I was a funny looking baby but my parents insist I was heartbreakingly adorable.

    Though maybe it’s just that I was as unphotogenic as a baby as I am now.

    I remember when my brother was born and the first time I saw him thinking that our family must have the cutest baby of all the babies there. Now, I hadn’t seen the other babies, but I was absolutely certain in that way that 4 year olds are.

  12. From the article, the researchers seem to be trying to use button-pushing as an example of energy expenditure. They seem to be concluding that men “work” to hold on to pretty babies, and women “work” to get rid of ugly babies.

    Clearly, both groups prefer looking at pretty babies longer than at ugly babies. But are the women just going through the pictures more quickly in general?

    I’d be interested to see what happens if you change the default time the picture is left on the screen. If the picture is only up for two seconds, will women still click away the ugly babies? Will they start clicking more to keep the pretty ones?

    What if we replaced pictures of babies with pictures of, say, landscapes? Would women still chase away ugly pictures?

    Hm, I might have to read the actual journal article for this one…

  13. @Jen:

    That idea is touched upon briefly:

    There are some potential holes in Elman’s work, all of which he acknowledges. For one thing, it’s possible women avoid the unattractive faces not because they’re less sensitive to them but because they’re more sensitive, simply finding the hardships endured by unhealthy babies too difficult to contemplate. . . .

  14. @infinitemonkey:

    There have been many cases of dumpster babies-so many that states have had to make safe drop zones to discard of unwated babies. I don’t see a rhymn or reason to these.

    Well, these “dumpster babies” generally do have a rhyme and reason of sorts. Generally the women who leave their babies in dumbers (or wherever) do so because they are desperate, and not necessarily because they don’t love the baby. The majority of these cases are almost certainly in poor areas and the majority of these women are likely poor or otherwise do not have any support (ie, she’ll be shunned because the father is MIA).

  15. @Jen:

    Wasn’t that point brought up in the article? (I read it yesterday, so it’s a little foggy)

    But, while I’m not ready to buy into the results of this study, I’m certainly not ready to be dismissive.

    The reality of babies is that they don’t have much to offer besides their cuteness. I can’t help but think that a little extra cute probably goes a long way. A little extra cute certainly helps adults out, and children, too.

    And the question isn’t whether the parents of these children love them more, is it? Isn’t it a better test of whether humans, as a group, love them just as much?

    And pardon my random thought vomit, but another thing to consider is that the headline containing words “Ugly babies” and “harder to love” isn’t the title of the study, it’s the bait used to get you to read the article about the study. Instead of looking at it as “ugly babies are unlovable” you could read it as “pretty babies are easier to fall in love with”.

  16. @Amanda: Yeah, I’ve always been under the impression that when YOUR baby does it, its the cutest thing (s)he could do, that just proves that (s)he’s the smartest baby in all the world. Besides, did it give an age range of the babies in the study? I didn’t actually read the article….I know, bad monkey.

  17. @Elyse: @Sam Ogden: It was touched on in the article, but I’ve seen this link several places now, and everyone who has posted it hasn’t really mentioned anything about that part. I got the impression they were all going for “women don’t like babies, isn’t that shocking” type of thing.

  18. @marilove: Also lets not forget it is infinetly preferable to have a baby tossed in a dumpster instead of being aborted. Also now that they are born they can get busy pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.

  19. Doesn’t this study only really show that people feel uncomfortable looking at facial irregularities, not necessarily that cute babies are preferred or more loved. Have there been studies done with adults instead of babies as well? I suspect that most people would feel at least somewhat uncomfortable when looking at a facial irregularity, regardless of age.

  20. One more vomit:

    How much of this is shitty science reporting vs shitty science? Isn’t this probably just a preliminary study?

  21. I’ve been told I have a feeling. Only one. I’m thinking that gives me a touch of objectivity on the topic.

    I’ve got two striking boys. It is common for strangers to remark on them. This must happen to others as well, though.

    I distinctly remember comparing my boys to other babies of their same age. Most kids seem to be pretty normal looking little humans. Symmetrical, proportioned, etc.

    Make no mistake, there are some seriously ugly babies out there. Not all of them are cute. Not in the least. Two come to mind, one bore an amazing resemblance to an elf, another to a chimp. Their images are in my mind right now.

    My mother, a long ago pediatrics nurse, would withold comments if asked about how cute one of those ugly babies was. She has confirmed to me that they aren’t all cute.

    But, I think what may be the evolutionary advantage is how they are perceived by their parents. I don’t think it’s how the baby’s ugliness or cuteness is measured by society that is important, but how it is measured by the baby’s parents.

  22. Well, I think the study would be better if it looked at cute, healthy babies vs. ugly, healthy babies. Of course that is somewhat subjective, but not impossible to determine. Maybe they could show subjects each picture for 2 seconds, ask for a cuteness rating, and then display the picture again for 2-4 seconds. I don’t how unusual the irregularities were for the non-cute babies, but if they are strong enough, it could make the baby look less human and that could be a part of the process.

  23. @catgirl: Well it was snarkcasm. But I do think we would have fewer cases of dumpster babies if we didn’t waste time on abstinence only sex education and if abortion was more widely available. There are places in America where it is almost impossible to get a safe, legal abortion. Poe’s law is about comparing a person to hitler, right? Did I compare anyone to hitler?

  24. @Gabrielbrawley:
    No, Godwin’s law is when you refer to Hitler/Nazis. Poe’s law is basically when you make up a rant to imitate/make fun of wingnuts, your rant is indistinguishable from a genuine wingnut rant. However, this may apply to only certain topics; I’m not sure.

    Anyway, I completely agree with you about the birth control, education, and available abortions stuff.

  25. @catgirl: Oh, okay, well I guess that my answer show I was clueless to poe’s law and yah, I was trying to make fun of wingnuts. Does that mean I violated internet law? Am I in trouble?

  26. @Gabrielbrawley: Poe’s Law isn’t really a law you can violate. Its more like the internet’s version of Gravity, its always there, but some things remind you of it more acutely than others. and as @marilove points out, a good Poe is great entertainment. =D

  27. My daughter was born via last-minute C section but she looked like Charles Laughton. Didn’t matter, I still bonded pretty quickly.

    She looks better now, 28 years later, but it would have been so cool if she’d had a British accent like Laughton.

  28. How ridiculous. That study does not have anything to do with love. Where did you pull that out? As a mother I can easily see why women would not want to look at a baby with a cleft lip. It hurts us. Our hearts go out to the child, we dont want to gawk at the deformity, it seems disrepectful. Has nothing to do with love. Just another junk science survey to prove that women hate children and screw them up.

  29. This reminds me of the time I was still living with my parents and doing late night shifts at the restaurant where I worked at the time.

    On my days off I would stay up late watching TV until I fell asleep in the living room. My mother, a notorious insomniac, would sometimes stay up watching TV with me. Usually we watched old movies, but occasionally a really bad horror film would come on. Usually, these movies would make her go to bed.

    One night they had on It’s Alive. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about mutant baby that goes around killing people when it gets frightened.

    A fanged mutant baby with claws, that goes around killing. (Creepy old 70’s commercial.)

    Near the end of the movie, I realized my mother was still there sitting on the couch.

    “Doesn’t this bug you? All of the blood and gore?” I asked her.

    “Usually it does,” she replied.

    “Then what’s different about this movie?”

    “That poor thing is adorable…”

    It was then that realized why she kept me after I was born.

  30. @MiddleMan: COTW!!

    Maybe the fabled “maternal instinct” hasn’t kicked in for me yet, but I don’t pay that much attention to what babies look like. I usually think “awww cute!” then hand them back before they start crying or pooping. They have to be cute for us to put up with that aspect!

    My mother claims I was adorable and angelic and she fell in love right away. It was only when she took me home and I became colic that I’m sure the feeling wavered.

  31. @Gabrielbrawley:

    either it is a perfect example of this poe thing I just learned about or that person is completly insane

    Exactly. This is the best definition of Poe’s law I have ever heard. It’s impossible to tell the difference.

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