Babyfaceness refers to a configuration of facial qualities that differentiates babies from adults. A baby’s head is characterized by a large cranium with a perpendicular forehead and small lower face with a receding chin. Compared with adults, babies also have relatively large eyes, full cheeks, fine eyebrows, and a “pug” nose. Although the appearance of babies defines babyish facial qualities, babyfaceness is not synonymous with age. At every age level, including infancy and older adulthood, some individuals are more babyfaced than others. Thus, a more babyfaced adult could be younger or older than one who is more mature-faced. More babyfaced individuals share certain features with babies, such as rounder faces, larger eyes, smaller noses, higher foreheads, and smaller chins. There are babyfaced and mature-faced individuals of both sexes, although women’s facial anatomy tends to resemble that of babies more than men’s does. Babyfaced individuals also are found among people of all racial backgrounds, which is consistent with the fact that the differences in facial appearance between babies and adults are similar for all humans. Indeed, there are even some similarities across species.
Context and Importance of Babyfaceness
Recognizing babies and responding appropriately to them has had great evolutionary importance. Those who didn’t do so were certainly less likely to have passed their genes on to the next generation. Thus we have evolved a ready recognition of babies’ distinctive appearance qualities that generalizes to people of all ages who resemble babies. There is high agreement in perceiving some adults as more “babyfaced” than others. Moreover, people can recognize babyish facial features in a racially unfamiliar person just as well as in someone from their own group. The ability to identify babyfaced individuals develops at an early age. Not only can infants differentiate babies from older individuals, but also they discriminate between baby-faced and mature-faced people of the same age by showing a preference for looking at the more baby-faced person. Young children are able to show their keen sensitivity to variations in babyfaceness with words. When shown two photographs of young adults and asked which one looks “most like a baby,” children as young as 3 years old tended to choose the same face that college students judged as the more babyfaced of the two.
Individuals who resemble babies experience effects far more significant than just being labeled babyfaced. Just as babies deter aggression and elicit warm, affectionate, and protective responses, babyfaced individuals of all ages elicit unique social interactions. These derive from the tendency to perceive them as having more childlike traits, including naivete, submissiveness, physical weakness, warmth, and honesty.
A sense that babyfaced individuals should be protected from those who are more mature-faced is revealed in the finding that more babyfaced plaintiffs in small claims court are awarded more compensation from mature-faced than babyfaced perpetrators. Other evidence of stronger protective responses to babyfaced individuals is provided by the finding that people who find a lost letter with a resume enclosed are more likely to return it when the photo on the resume shows a babyfaced than a mature-faced person. A sense that babyfaced individuals are naive is revealed in the finding that adults speak more slowly when teaching a game to babyfaced 4-year-olds than when teaching the same game to more mature-faced 4-year-olds and in the finding that adults assign less cognitively demanding chores to babyfaced than mature-faced 11-year-olds. The perception that babyfaced individuals are submissive is revealed in the finding that they are less likely to be recommended for jobs requiring leadership than are equally qualified mature-faced job applicants. On the other hand, those who are more babyfaced are more likely to be recommended for jobs requiring warmth. A job applicant’s babyfaceness made as much of a difference in job recommendations as the applicant’s sex, and the actual jobs that people held were influenced as much by their babyfaceness as by their personality traits, further demonstrating the power of babyfaceness to influence social outcomes.
The perception of babyfaced individuals as more honest and naive than their mature-faced peers has significant consequences for their judged culpability when accused of wrongdoing. Adults perceive the misbehavior of babyfaced children as less intentional than the same misdeeds by mature-faced children of the same age. Similarly, babyfaced adults are less likely to be convicted of intentional crimes than their mature-faced peers. In contrast, babyfaced adults are more likely to be convicted of negligent crimes, consistent with stereotyped perceptions of their naivete. These effects have been found not only in laboratory experiments but also in actual trials in small claims courts. Interestingly, when babyfaced adults or children admit committing intentional wrongdoing, they are punished more severely than the mature-faced, whereas they are punished less severely for acknowledged negligent acts. It seems that others react more harshly to people’s negative behavior when their appearance makes that behavior very unexpected.
One might wonder whether babyfaced individuals actually have the traits that others expect. Although others’ expectations may sometimes elicit confirming behavior from babyfaced individuals in a particular social interaction, evidence suggests that babyfaced people do not reliably show the expected traits. Indeed, there are documented differences between babyfaced and mature-faced people that are opposite to the stereotypes. More babyfaced young men tend to be more highly educated, contrary to impressions of their naivete, more assertive and likely to earn military awards, contrary to impressions of their submissiveness and weakness, and more likely to be juvenile delinquents when they come from a high risk population, contrary to impressions of their honesty. Although these differences are small, they still call for an explanation. One possibility is that babyfaced young men try so hard to refute others’ stereotypes of them that they overcompensate.
- Montepare, J. M., & Zebrowitz, L. A. (1998). Person perception comes of age: The salience and significance of age in social judgments. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 30, pp. 93-163). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Zebrowitz, L. A. (1997). Reading faces: Window to the soul? Boulder, CO: Westview Press.