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Principles of Design #29 – Baby-Face Bias

Reading (baby) faces

Baby-face bias is the tendency to see people and things with baby-faced features as more naive, helpless and honest than those with more mature features. Round features, large eyes, small noses, high foreheads, short chins and relatively lighter skin and hair are all considered as babylike, and as a result perceived to have  more babylike personality traits such as naivete, helplessness, honesty and innocence. By contrast, more mature features are correlated with perceptions of authority, intelligence and seriousness.

This bias is found across cultures and age ranges, although mainly in mammalian species, and is not just limited to character design. It is often applied abstractly to make an object seem friendly or simple, as when a computer or television with a large screen (mimicking large bright eyes) appears more ‘open’ than with a small screen. Think of the front of a Volkswagen Beetle with large round headlights and smoothly arched front windshield and it’s resemblance to a baby’s face.

Baby or not?

This bias is clearly seen in the way that babies are treated by adults, and it’s been shown that babies with weak baby-face features receive less positive attention and are rated as less attractive, less likeable and less fun than those with strong baby-face features. Large, round heads and eyes are the strongest of these facial cues, contributing most to the biasing effect. Sadly, premature babies often lack these features (their eyes may be closed and heads less round), perhaps influencing the fact that they are rated by adults as less desirable to care for or be around.

Adults are also subject to this bias (do you have any baby-face friends?), but unlike children there are often liabilities to being perceived in this way.  Baby-face adults appearing in commercials can be effective if their role is to appear innocent and honest (for example, giving a personal testimony), but ineffective if their role is to speak authoritatively about a topic (eg as a doctor or expert). Baby-faced adults are generally seen as more naive and simple, and may find it difficult to be taken seriously in confrontational situations or where expertise is required.

Baby-faced consequences

In legal proceedings, baby-faced adults are more likely to be found innocent when the alleged crime involves an intentional act, and more likely to be found guilty when the alleged crime involves a negligent act (ie it is more believable for baby-faced people to do wrong accidentally than on purpose). Such perceptions also influence sentencing, as when baby-faced dependents plead guilty they tend to receive harsher sentences than mature-faced defendants (perhaps the contrast between expectations of innocence and conclusions of guilt provoke stronger reactions than when expectations are more aligned with conclusions).

Baby-face bias is important to consider in designing characters or products with prominent facial characteristics (most notably, cartoon characters for children). Such characters are more appealing when neonatal features (especially larger rounder heads and eyes) are exaggerated.

For advertising and marketing, it is important to use the right ‘face’ to convey the right message.  Mature faces convey expertise and authority, while baby faces convey honesty and submissiveness (important for personal testimony). Click here to see how to plan a trip with baby, sometimes the best vacationing with the baby is to simply go camping, that’s what my family and I did, we went camping with a tent from Survival Cooking our baby stayed safe the whole trip, while we of course, had lots of fun.

REFERENCES

Principles of Design, Revised and Updated by William Lidwell, Kritina Holden and Jill Butler (2010)

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