[Paleopsych] NYT: Ugly Children May Get Parental Short Shrift

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Thu May 5 16:25:53 UTC 2005

Ugly Children May Get Parental Short Shrift
New York Times, 5.5.3

[This is the most e-mailed article at the NYT today. Is this really surprising 


    Parents would certainly deny it, but Canadian researchers have made a
    startling assertion: parents take better care of pretty children than
    they do ugly ones.

    Researchers at the University of Alberta carefully observed how
    parents treated their children during trips to the supermarket. They
    found that physical attractiveness made a big difference.

    The researchers noted if the parents belted their youngsters into the
    grocery cart seat, how often the parents' attention lapsed and the
    number of times the children were allowed to engage in potentially
    dangerous activities like standing up in the shopping cart. They also
    rated each child's physical attractiveness on a 10-point scale.

    The findings, not yet published, were presented at the Warren E.
    Kalbach Population Conference in Edmonton, Alberta.

    When it came to buckling up, pretty and ugly children were treated in
    starkly different ways, with seat belt use increasing in direct
    proportion to attractiveness. When a woman was in charge, 4 percent of
    the homeliest children were strapped in compared with 13.3 percent of
    the most attractive children. The difference was even more acute when
    fathers led the shopping expedition - in those cases, none of the
    least attractive children were secured with seat belts, while 12.5
    percent of the prettiest children were.

    Homely children were also more often out of sight of their parents,
    and they were more often allowed to wander more than 10 feet away.

    Age - of parent and child - also played a role. Younger adults were
    more likely to buckle their children into the seat, and younger
    children were more often buckled in. Older adults, in contrast, were
    inclined to let children wander out of sight and more likely to allow
    them to engage in physically dangerous activities.

    Although the researchers were unsure why, good-looking boys were
    usually kept in closer proximity to the adults taking care of them
    than were pretty girls. The researchers speculated that girls might be
    considered more competent and better able to act independently than
    boys of the same age. The researchers made more than 400 observations
    of child-parent interactions in 14 supermarkets.

    Dr. W. Andrew Harrell, executive director of the Population Research
    Laboratory at the University of Alberta and the leader of the research
    team, sees an evolutionary reason for the findings: pretty children,
    he says, represent the best genetic legacy, and therefore they get
    more care.

    Not all experts agree. Dr. Frans de Waal, a professor of psychology at
    Emory University, said he was skeptical.

    "The question," he said, "is whether ugly people have fewer offspring
    than handsome people. I doubt it very much. If the number of offspring
    are the same for these two categories, there's absolutely no
    evolutionary reason for parents to invest less in ugly kids."

    Dr. Robert Sternberg, professor of psychology and education at Yale,
    said he saw problems in Dr. Harrell's method and conclusions, for
    example, not considering socioeconomic status.

    "Wealthier parents can feed, clothe and take care of their children
    better due to greater resources," Dr. Sternberg said, possibly making
    them more attractive. "The link to evolutionary theory is

    But Dr. Harrell said the importance of physical attractiveness "cuts
    across social class, income and education."

    "Like lots of animals, we tend to parcel out our resources on the
    basis of value," he said. "Maybe we can't always articulate that, but
    in fact we do it. There are a lot of things that make a person more
    valuable, and physical attractiveness may be one of them."

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