Study: Unattractive Children Get Less Parental Attention

According to a recent study, unattractive children receive less attention from their parents than "traditionally attractive" kids. Farai Chideya speaks with the author of the study, Andrew Harrell, executive director of the Population Research Laboratory at the University of Alberta, Canada.

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ED GORDON, host:

A recent study from the University of Alberta offers evidence that unattractive children receive less attention from their parents. Andrew Harrell conducted that study. He's the executive director of the Population Research Laboratory at the University of Alberta in Canada. He told our Farai Chideya that his work on the topic first focused on the behavior in shopping malls.

Mr. ANDREW HARRELL (Executive Director, Population Research Laboratory): Unattractive children were allowed to wander off in the mall, and their hands were less likely to be held by parents, and parents were less likely to talk to them. So we weren't surprised when almost 30 years later we looked at children and their parents in grocery stores and found pretty much the same thing.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Well, let me ask you this. You know, I think that many people, including myself, have a hard time understanding how studies are done. What makes you certain that what you think you found out is what you actually found out?

Mr. HARRELL: Well, we've--I was trained as a zoologist and an anthropologist, and so I've applied those techniques throughout my career. I do lots of naturalistic observation, so I get actually in the field and observe. In the case of this particular study, we had done, I believe, 10 previous studies in grocery stores. So we were comfortable in that setting. And we had observer teams made up of four people. Two members of each team went in once they found a--I won't say a victim, but a subject, a parent, one parent with one child. And they were trained just to look strictly at facial features, not to look at the clothing or the hair cut or anything that might be indicative of social class. And once they were through--they'd spend about five minutes doing their estimates of attractiveness--another pair of observers came in on cue and they observed parenting behavior, whether the parent ever left the child and was out of sight of the child and, most importantly, whether or not the child had been strapped into the baby seat with a seat belt that was provided.

CHIDEYA: Now if I understand evolution correctly, if parents like cute kids, cute kids should do better in the world. So everyone should be absolutely beautiful. Why is that not the case?

Mr. HARRELL: Because obviously, there are other things that count besides beauty. Certainly, beauty is an important asset. It helps you in television and the movies. And there's evidence that more attractive attorneys win more cases and so forth. But obviously, it isn't a factor in basketball. Some of us beautiful people have been waiting around for years to be drafted by the NBA, and no such luck.

CHIDEYA: So if I catch you correctly, you're saying that beauty is an actual kind of biological deterministic factor that can shape your life, but it's not the only thing.

Mr. HARRELL: No, it's not. Over the--I guess, the last three or four decades, social psychologists and anthropologists have gotten very good at measuring what is beautiful and what aspects of the human body are perceived as being beautiful, and the focus has pretty much been on the symmetry of the body, especially the face. So they've been able to identify the elements of the physical makeup that constitute beauty.

CHIDEYA: So if beauty is that easy to boil down, why shouldn't everyone, for example, just go out and get plastic surgery, make their face perfectly symmetrical, earn more money, have their parents love them more and have everything be beautiful?

Mr. HARRELL: Well, in way, we're doing that. The beauty industry's massive, when you look at cosmetics, when you look even at television shows that devote themselves to plastic surgeries and makeovers. You can't get away from it. And I think there is a growing trend for everybody to try and be more beautiful.

CHIDEYA: We've been talking to Andrew Harrell. He's the executive director of the Population Research Laboratory at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

Thanks for joining us.

Mr. HARRELL: Thanks very much.

CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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