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Babyface overgeneralization effect

Dr. Simon Moss


The faces of babies tend to be small and round, with large eyes, a short nose, thick lips, a protruding, curved forehead, and thin eyebrows. The faces of some older individuals might also be characterized by these features. These individuals are designated as baby faced or possessing a neotenous facial structure.

Interestingly, individuals with a baby face tend to be perceived as more innocent, submissive, warm, cooperative, compassionate, gullible, honest, and trusting. They are not regarded as manipulative, competitive, or ruthless (for a review, see Zebrowitz, 1997) Arguably, features that epitomize babies prime inclinations that are adaptive when individuals interact with babies, called a babyface overgeneralization effect& these effects are likely to span a diversity of cultures (McArthur & Berry, 1987).

Empirical evidence


Many studies indicate that individuals with a baby face are perceived as more trustworthy. To illustrate, when the extent to which individuals are trustworthy is ambiguous, anyone with a baby face is especially likely to be persuasive (Brownlow, 1992). Similarly, in response to crises, a corporate representative or spokesperson with a baby face is more likely to be trusted than other individuals (Gorn, Jiang, & Johar, 2008).

Agency and competence

Individuals with a baby face are also often regarded as innocent. They are not perceived to be especially powerful, influential, effective, or competent. As a consequence, they are often not perceived as suitable leaders (Rule & Ambady, 2008& Zebrowitz & Montepare, 2005).

Nevertheless, consistent with the concept of disarming mechanisms, some constituencies are perceived as more suitable to leadership if their face is neotenous. According to Livingston and Pearce (2009), for example, in the United States, many individuals with white skin do not trust African Americans. That is, they perceive African Americans as aggessive as well as hostile and thus unsuitable in leadership roles.

When the face of African Americans is neotenous, with features that epitomize babies, this perception of hostility may diminish. These African Americans may be perceived as more caring or warm and thus suitable leaders, called the teddy bear effect. Indeed, studies do indicate that individuals with a baby face are perceived as warm (Zebrovitz, 1997).

In one study, conducted by Livingston and Pearce (2009), participants rated the extent to which they perceived various managers as baby-faced. In addition, they estimated the remuneration of these managers. Participants tended to assume that African American managers who are baby-faced earned more money. Indeed, another study showed that African American managers with neotenous faces actually do earn more money (Livingston & Pearce, 2009). This pattern of findings did not apply to white managers.

Care and altruism

Individuals are also more inclined to help someone with a baby face. In a study conducted by Keating, Randall, Kendrick, and Gutshall (2003), for example, resumes with a passport photo were, deliberately, sent to the wrong address, called the lost letter technique. If the photo depicted a person with a baby face, the resumes were more to be returned to the sender--but only if the recipient was white.


Individuals like to treat babies with care. Similarly, they do not like to punish anyone with a baby face, at least not harshly. For example, at least for specific categories of crimes, individuals prefer to dispense lenient sentences to perpetrators with a baby face than to perpetrators with a more mature face (e.g., Berry & Zebrowitz-McArthur, 1988).


The faces of both women and men can include features that epitomize young children. Nevertheless, baby faced features are more prevalent in women than in men (Friedman & Zebrowitz, 1992). This disparity is consistent with the observation that stereotypes of women tend to comprise many of the characteristics that typify infants: warmth, innocence, and gullibility (see also Zebrowitz & Montepare, 1992).

Actual behavior

Neotenous faces do not affect only the evaluations and responses of other individuals. These features might correlate with actual behavior.

Nevertheless, as Zebrowitz, Andreoletti, Collins, Lee, and Blumenthal (1998) showed, individuals with baby faces often demonstrate characteristics that diverge from their evaluations. That is, they often experience the motivation to deviate from undesirable expectations.

To illustrate, although they are expected to be incompetent, individuals with a baby face tend to outperform peers at school (Zebrowitz, Andreoletti, Collins, Lee, & Blumenthal, 1998). This relationship is especially pronounced in individuals with elevated IQ or socio-economic status. Similarly, as adolescents, they were more likely to have committed crimes.

Factors that amplify or inhibit the babyface overgeneralization effect

Several factors can magnify or curb the effects of baby faces on subsequent evaluations or responses. To illustrate, when individuals can dedicate significant cognitive resources to an important task, they can counter the effects of baby faces (Gorn, Jiang, & Johar, 2008). That is, when they concentrate intensely, individuals with baby faces are not necessarily perceived as more honest.

Furthermore, in another study, conducted by Gorn, Jiang, and Johar (2008), participants completed a task in which baby faces were often associated with harm. This exercise reversed the traditional effects of baby faces on subsequent evaluations.


Neural mechanisms

According to some researchers, baby faces activate some of the mechanisms and inclinations that coincide with babies. Consistent with this proposition, the neural activation in response to babies and men with baby faces overlap considerably (Zebrowitz, Luevano, Bronstad, & Aharon, 2009). Specifically, the amygdala and fusiform face area are especially active when individuals observe faces of babies or men with baby faces--but not as active when individuals observe men with mature faces.

Measures and manipulations

Research has utilized a variety of procedures to measure or manipulate the extent to which individuals are perceived as baby faced. In some studies, participants are merely asked to rate the extent to which a person is perceived as baby faced on a scale from "not at all baby faced" to "very baby faced" (Livingston & Pearce, 2009). Sometimes, participants first undertake some training before they complete these measures. During this training, the features of baby faces are specified. They are informed that faces of individuals at any age or of any gender or ethnicity can comprise these features. Some examples of baby faces and mature faces, of various genders and ages, are then presented.

The extent to which individuals are rated as baby faced does vary across their life. This variation is more pronounced than variation in facial attractiveness, for example (Zebrowitz, Olson, & Hoffman, 1993). The extent to which individuals are baby faced does seem to change, especially during their 50s, when facial structure can transform.

Related concepts

Facial width to height ratio

Generally, the face and cheeks of individuals with a baby face are round. As a consequence, the face of these individuals is often wider rather than longer.

Indeed, this feature of faces, called the facial width or height ratio, is sometimes measured. To calculate this ratio, the width is the distance between the left and right zygion, which are the left and right most points on the face, often around the height of the eyes. The height is the distance between the mid brow and the upper lip. A high ratio indicates a wide rather than long face (Carre, McCormich, & Mondloch, 2009& Weston, Friday, & Lio, 2007).

As Carre, McCormich, and Mondloch (2009), an elevated ratio, although possibly common in individuals with a baby face, is actually associated with aggression. That is, individuals with a wider, rather than longer, face tend to act more aggressively in laboratory tasks (Carre & McCormick, 2008). In this task, participants can press one of three buttons. If they press one button, they earn points. If they press another button, their points cannot be stolen from a competitor. If they press the third button, points are deducted from a competitor but without any benefit to themselves, which is often deemed to be an aggressive act. Individuals with a wider face tend to select this aggressive option more frequently than do other participants (Carre & McCormick, 2008), at least in men. Individuals with a wide face also tend to receive more penalties in hockey (Carre & McCormick, 2008).

In addition, individuals with wider faces are also perceived as more aggressive. In a study conducted by Carre, McCormich, and Mondloch (2009), a series of faces was presented. Participants rated the degree to which they feel each person would be aggressive if provoked. Individuals with a wider face were assumed to be more aggressive. Thus wide faces, but not baby faces, seem to be positive related to aggression.


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