Do babies cry when they look at you?
Your looks, your race, or your gender may have something to do with it, according to psychology professor Jennifer Rennels.
Stereotypes based on attractiveness, masculinity/femininity, and race are formed at an early age, said Rennels, director of the Baby and Child Rebel Lab. Her studies reveal that babies scan faces for such traits. Now she's researching why babies stereotype and how stereotyping can be curbed before children reach adulthood.
Familiarity Breeds Comfort
Rennels' research has shown that 92 percent of the faces infants see in their first year are the same race as the infants' primary caregiver. Familiarity with a certain type of face generates a favorable reaction from the babies. And if the baby is more responsive to a female, it's because 71 percent of the faces babies see in their first year are female and because more females care for babies, Rennels said.
Rennels has found that infants look more at the external facial features, such as hair and ears, of people whose race was familiar to them. For example, infants scan a female's hair (an external feature) more than a male's. According to Rennels, that's because external features are easier for babies to process.
Rennels' grant from the National Science Foundation for Faculty Early Career Development is helping her to study how infants react to male faces and unfamiliar races and why babies have a difficult time recognizing different faces. She's also looking at what cues adults find attractive in male faces and whether adult and infant scanning behaviors are closely linked.
Rennels contends that learning about the origin of stereotypes is imperative to understanding social norms.
"Understanding the way infants categorize individuals in their social environment is important because these early categories can become linked to certain attributes and subsequently develop into stereotypes," she said.
Exposing children to various ethnic groups, races, and more male faces may help prevent adults from stereotyping, therefore leading us to accept differences early on, Rennels said.
Observing Baby Stereotyping
Inside the Baby and Child Rebel Lab, Rennels and her team of graduate and undergraduate assistants have been observing babies ages 3 months to 12 months.
Using computer eye-tracking programs, Rennels' can pinpoint the eye movements, facial expressions, and areas of the face babies fixate upon. With parents by their side, babies are shown more than 20 composite faces on a television screen. The faces of men and women of various races, ages 18 to 35 years old, are pieced together from real-life volunteers.
Finding research participants is a challenge, which often affects the speed and frequency of lab experiments. Rennels and her team scan newspapers for birth announcements and send letters to families of newborns, hoping the subject of the study will spark interest.