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Do Beautiful Babies Become the Most Beautiful Adults?

A new study examines whether attractiveness in infancy is predictive.

Forgive me, I believe my 1-year-old is the cutest baby ever. Yes, yes, mothers have a strong bias for their own children. As I detail in my new book, certain reward circuits "light up" in parental brains only when looking at their own offspring. But objectively—objectively!—my daughter is adorable.

The little one has "Gerber baby" features: a bulbous forehead, big eyes, luscious cheeks and thighs (and curls). Babies with these qualities are rated as cuter than those with sunken foreheads, small eyes, and large or long chins. Adults smile and gaze longer at them. Attractive infants are perceived to be more sociable, easier to care for, and more competent than their homely peers. They inhibit aggression in adult men. They're nurtured more.

Our baby thrills to the attention, and my husband and I have started to worry that being cute might not lead to anything good. I have a theory that ugly ducklings and tomboys grow up to have richer inner lives. I don't want a princess.

We want to know: Do the cutest babies turn out to be the most attractive adults?

Conveniently, a recent study by psychologists Marissa Harrison, Gordon Gallup Jr, and their colleagues addresses this very question. (I love studies like this; they're driven by pure curiosity.) The presumption is that physical attractiveness remains stable over time. This has been proven in childhood onward: attractive ten-year-olds are likelier to be attractive adults. (Another study found that adult attractiveness can be predicted as early as age five). But until now no study had tracked attractiveness from infancy.

It's interesting, how the psychologists went about it. They sifted through high school yearbooks and found 108 graduating seniors who featured photos of themselves as infants. Then they asked several hundred college students to rate the the individuals—in infancy and in adulthood—for attractiveness.

The upshot?

There was no correlation between attractiveness in infancy and (young) adulthood. Some ugly ducklings turned into swans, some baby swans become ugly ducks. Some gawky, awkward babies remained that way into their senior year of high school. And some beautiful babies kept their glow through the years. This was true of males and females alike. Cuteness—or homeliness—in infancy does not predict future attractiveness.

The study included an interesting side finding: While the raters were likely to agree about which infants were attractive, they often disagreed about which eighteen-year-olds made the cut. Why? The gold standard of baby beauty—the forehead, the eyes, the thighs—is universal. These preferences are hard-wired in us to elicit care and protection, while the perception of adult beauty is tempered by culture.

Cute babies are universal positives. In this light, it's OK that mine gets attention now. The future will be much less predictable.

*If you like this post, click here for previous posts and here to read a description of my most recent book, Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?, on the science behind love, sex, and attraction. If you wish, check out my forthcoming book, Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy.