Facial innocence and the survival mechanism

November 28, 2019by Mahesh Patel

I was always intrigued when I felt parents expressed a surprise, resistance or reluctance when we advised ‘developing’ their child’s jaw as a part of orthodontic correction. In fact, and almost always, without this correction the orthodontic treatment would be hampered. In my early years as an orthodontist it was a challenge get my thoughts around this aspect. I thought it was perhaps they did not want such an intrusive brace! Lets face it at first sight, the brace that is used for this correction can look rather large.

I feel I now have a better understanding for this resistance. There are a number of reasons including ‘confirmation bias’ when it seemed parents did not see anything wrong with their child’s jaw. However, more than this there is an evolutionary aspect to this which I find particularly interesting. It was not until I was in a similar position when I faced this particular paradox when one of children needed treatment.

We judging people based on the way they look and it seems baby-faces have a distinct advantage.

Here is an image of one of my children:

boy smiling

As an orthodontist I knew the would benefit from a brace that would change his lower jaw slightly. As a parent, I did not see the need as he looked very cute.

Larger eyes, smaller noses, smaller chins and chubby cheeks. We are hardwired into their innocent faces makes us less aggressive, more generous, smiley and helpful. These cues fly beneath our conscious most, it not all, of the time. Studies consistently show it is the structure of the face that first conveys these signals and not facial expression.

The evolutionary aspect to the survival mechanism

‘Cute’ features have been accepted the world over. Think of advertising and cartoons that are more endearing. Disney used this to advantage in creating Mickey Mouse and Bambi. They call out: ‘I am no threat to you out, protect me, don’t hurt me.’ From the evolution aspect this is an advantage as a survival mechanism. So finally we are perhaps coming to understanding  parental reluctance to having the jaw position changed in their child. Moving on the the later teens when nature kick off the hormones to developing towards maturity, the faces with weaker chins, protrusive teeth – particularly in males – are a disadvantage as these are feminine cues.

However, it is not as simple as this. All humans are baby-faced to a degree compared to nearly all animals. We have larger heads, flatter faces, bigger eyes and smaller jaws compared to adults. Evolution records this trend is continuing moving from a more ‘robust’ to ‘gracile’ face.  We evolved a more child-like appearance’ says David Perrett, a psychologist from the University of St Andrews.

Men are from Mars and women are from Venus (?)

In women, there is ample evidence that a degree of a baby-face features are attractive. This may be a signal of youth which has a selective advantage in finding partners and evolving the human race.

In men, the “cute” look appears to be at odds with the chiseled jawline and dominant, masculine features of male models. However, it’s a little more complicated. In 1988 Perrett decided to investigate. He made an ‘average’ female and an ‘average’ male face by blending several together, and asked volunteers to diminish or enhance their femininity (babyishness) or masculinity until they looked the most attractive. ‘To our surprise, people did not like faces enhanced in masculinity, commenting how cold the faces looked.’ However, I believe the truth probably lies between the two, the face needs both elements and a balance. There are times when both masculine and feminine features have a role. So it is advantageous that certain facial features can be rendered more feminine through expression e.g. the eyes and mouth in particular. The more delicate faces can  look warm, and kind. It is also suggested that women may be attracted to men who look like they will be a cooperative partner with these warmer facial features particularly during expression.

The other explanation is more straightforward; hi-jacking the normal response to babies has so many social advantages, deep in our evolutionary past those with baby-faces may have been more likely to survive. In times of scarcity, baby-faced individuals may have been better at begging food, for example:


Please sir, can I have some more?

Next time you find yourself staring affectionately into the eyes of a baby-faced friend, colleague or date – just remember, you could be in line to be the latest victim in a long-running evolutionary trick!

Mahesh Patel

Reference: https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20160913-the-benefits-of-having-a-babyface