Long ago, when humans were hunters and gatherers, children strongly relied on physical and behavioral cues (cute faces and endearing/clever sounds and words) to elicit a nurturing spirit in adults during the constant struggle for survival — and these cues are still as powerful today.
In a new study, researchers at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) set out to determine which childhood traits — cute physical features or innocent/clever words and phrases — are most effective at eliciting protective and nurturing feelings in adults.
Their findings show that once children reach preschool age, words are surprisingly more powerful than appearances when it comes to how adults feel about and respond to them.
For the study, the researchers used four photos of boys and four photos of girls aged six years old as face stimuli. Using a face-morphing software program they altered the images to make the children appear younger (between four and seven years old) and older (between eight and 10 years old).
The aim of the study was to compare adults’ reactions toward two specific indicators of maturity status in children.
First was physical maturity, as reflected by faces with different degrees of maturity. The sceond indicator was cognitive maturity, reflecting “natural” cognition such as a child overestimating his or her abilities, and “supernatural” cognition, such as when a child attributes animate characteristics to an inanimate object.
The researchers also chose adjectives and statements they believed represented a wide range of characteristics that potentially play an important role in how adults interact with young children.
Participants in the study were asked to select which of the two hypothetical children (younger or older) best reflected a series of traits (cute, friendly, likely to lie, smart). A total of 36 versions of the questionnaires were created so that each face was associated with both natural and supernatural vignettes equally as often.
“Our results indicate that children’s thinking is the more important cue to their maturational status and attributions of positive and negative affect than facial appearance,” said David Bjorklund, Ph.D., professor of psychology in FAU’s College of Science.
“As children enter the preschool years, additional cues become available to assess a child’s maturational status, among them language and the type of cognitive abilities that children express via language. It is during this time that children’s verbalized thinking becomes the most reliable source of information for adults about children’s psychological characteristics, with physical appearance assuming a more secondary or complementary role.”
Overall, the findings clearly showed that for children of the ages depicted (ages four to 10), cues of cognitive immaturity played a more potent role in influencing adults’ judgments than cues of physical immaturity.
For the supernatural vignette, expressions of immature thinking (e.g. “the sun didn’t come out today because it’s angry”) garnered a greater positive affect and greater helplessness for children with immature thinking regardless of whether or not these supernatural attributes were paired with an immature or mature face.
“From an evolutionary developmental perspective, our study shows that physical cues like big doe eyes, cherub-like cheeks, and large round heads — typical baby traits — are more relevant to adults during infancy than during the preschool period,” said Bjorklund.
“In preschool, with the spoken language, the verbalized expressions of children’s thoughts become the principal cues influencing adults’ perceptions.”
The study is published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.