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Women More Than Men Reject Babies With Birth Defects


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By Margarita Nahapetyan

Psychiatrists at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital have found that women have a harder time than men looking at babies with facial birth defects and are more likely than men to reject unattractive-looking babies. Researchers, who were studying perceptions of beauty, said that they had expected quite a different reaction.

McLean psychiatrist Dr. Igor Elman and postdoctoral student Rinah Yamamoto set to explore this phenomenon more closely. In a previous study, the McLean team examined men and women viewing photographic images of adult faces on a computer screen. The photos needed to be rated based on facial attractiveness, and the participants could control how long the image stayed on the screen by pushing special buttons. The results revealed that men invested three times the effort and time into viewing photographs of attractive women, when compared to their female counterparts who were viewing the pictures of attractive men.

So, this time Dr. Elman his team came up with the baby study. They recruited 27 volunteers, 13 men and 14 women. All the participants were asked to view 80 photos of babies, 50 of whom were healthy and 30 had abnormal facial defects, such as a cleft palate or a skin condition, Down syndrome or crossed eyes. After that the participants needed to rate each child's attractiveness on a scale of zero to 100, and were told that each image would remain on the screen for four seconds. However, subjects could shorten that time by clicking one button or extend their viewing of the photograph by clicking another button. What was the goal of the study, Dr. Elman explained, as how much effort people were willing to put to examine pictures of attractive babies or avoid looking at pictures of less attractive ones - and, importantly, what that implies.

The experts found that male participants in the study were less likely to click off the photographs of not pretty babies, when compared to their female counterparts. Men viewed them for the full four seconds, but viewed a little longer the images of the pretty ones. The reactions of male subjects were the same whether they had their own kids or not. On the contrary, female participants pressed the buttons 2.5 times more times, compared to mane, in order to make the pictures of babies with the birth defects disappear, the experts reported. That is even though they rated those babies no less attractive than the men had. Both men and women spent equal time and effort looking at images of the babies without abnormalities.

"Women had this subliminal motivation to get rid of the faces," Dr. Elman said, who questions whether "we are designed by nature to invest all the resources into healthy-looking kids." The authors could not explain the gender disparity. They said that according to previous studies, there is a relationship between child abandonment and neglect to abnormal appearance. "Women may be more sensitized to aesthetic defects and may be more prone to reject unattractive kids. Men do not appear to be as motivated. They did not expend the same effort," researchers said.

Dr. Elman, who is also an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said that since the study included very small numbers of participants, they must continue to investigate on this matter in larger follow-up studies. He said that in future studies they also plan to use brain scans of people in order to determine how men's and women's brains may be functioning differently while they look at the images and make their choices for prolonging or cutting the time they are viewing the images.

The study was released by Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital and was published on June 24 in the online journal PloS One, a journal of the Public Library of Science. The research, which also involved the experts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Pennsylvania, was funded by grants from the National Institute of Drug Abuse.

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