[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
By NICHOLAS BAKALAR
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
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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