Through Innocent Eyes: Facial Preferences of Infants

February 17, 2017
Heidi Moawad, MD

In scientific studies, babies show a strong preference for female faces. Is this an inherent favoritism, or can other factors explain this inclination?

Most developmentally healthy babies like looking at faces. And, interestingly, it turns out that babies have strong preferences when it comes to exactly what type of face they like to look at. Most anecdotal observations suggest that babies show a strong preference for friendly, smiling female faces. And scientific studies that track eye movements and other objective measures confirm this widespread belief, showing that babies do indeed show a strong preference for female faces when compared to male faces.

Why do babies prefer to look at females?

This tendency is not due an inherent favoritism of female facial features, but rather to the personal life experiences of very young babies. Studies suggest that babies do not always prefer female faces, but, in fact, show a strong preference for human faces of the same gender as the primary caregiver. Since most babies are primarily cared for by females, most babies prefer to look at female faces.

But there is an interesting exception to this rule. Babies prefer to look at faces that match the gender of their primary caregiver only if those faces are the same race as the primary caregiver. When babies are shown faces of adults of races that are not the same as that of the primary caregiver, they do not show a gender preference. Therefore, it seems that what babies truly prefer is to look at people who strongly resemble their primary caregiver. 

Can a baby’s face preference change?

Some of these findings may seem intuitive, as babies generally crave comfort and security. A familiar-looking face is one of the things that gives comfort to people of all ages. The reality is that although there is usually one primary caregiver in a young baby’s life, many babies are cared for by more than one person. Does this partiality for female faces differ for children who have multiple caregivers?

In fact, it does. Babies who are tested at 3 months of age or at 6 months of age show eye tracking consistent with preference for female faces. But, babies who are older, around 9 months of age, display a significant decline in the preference for female faces, which correlates with having more male interactions, as fathers and other male relatives are more likely to begin to share, or even take over, the primary responsibly of caring for older babies.

And, as would be expected, biracial babies scan faces a little differently, suggesting that perhaps young babies who are closely familiar with facial features of adults of more than one race process facial features using a different method.

Babies are inherently innocent, behaving in simple, instinctual ways that are free of bias. It is possible that greater amounts of interactions with people who have different ‘looks’ during early childhood could make children, and even adults, more comfortable with a variety of individuals who have differing physical appearances. Of course, if humans feel less threatened by people who look ‘different,’ the end result benefits everyone.

Do you think patients, especially young patients, are more comfortable with familiarity in the medical setting?

Liu S, et al. Asian infants show preference for own-race but not other-race female faces: the role of infant caregiving arrangements. Front Psychol. 2015 May 7;6:593.