Sexy dads: The allure of men who like babies

© 2009 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Like babies?

Experiments suggest that women can read a man’s affinity for babies in his face.

What’s more, men with “baby-friendly” faces are more attractive to women.

Good genes, sexy dads: What makes men attractive to women

Mention the evolutionary psychology of women’s mate preferences, and people think of

  • Physical attractiveness and masculinity (evidence of “good genes”)
  • Wealth and kindness (signals of an ability and willingness to invest in offspring)

Are these signals reliable? It’s easy to imagine how physical attractiveness might indicate good genes. Beauty depends, in part, on good health, and some genes may make men more resistant to disease.

Facial masculinity may be a marker of good health, too, because testosterone, which makes faces look more masculine, also suppresses the immune system. As a result, only the healthiest males can “handicap” themselves by producing high levels of testosterone.

But wealth and kindness don’t always indicate that a man wants to be a father. What about more direct markers of a man’s paternal qualities--his affinity for babies?

Researcher James Roney and colleagues wondered if being interested in babies makes a man sexier (Roney et al 2006).

To answer this question, they gave a group of young, American men (aged 18-30) with a visual preference test. The test presented men with a series of paired images. In each pair, one depicted an infant, the other an adult.

Men were asked to indicate which image in each pair they preferred. Researchers also measured the men’s testosterone levels.

Next, the researchers photographed the men’s faces and presented the photographs to a group of young women (aged 18-20).

On the basis of photographs alone, women were asked to rate each man for four traits:

  • “likes children”
  • “masculine”
  • “physically attractive”
  • “kind”

Based on previous studies, the researchers predicted that women would regard the men with higher testosterone levels as more masculine-looking. But could women tell that a man liked babies from a mere photograph?

Women could accurately judge a man’s affinity for babies

As predicted, women rated the men with higher testosterone levels as more masculine.

But even more interesting, there was a significant correlation between women’s perceptions of a man as “baby-friendly” and his score on the visual preference test.

And that’s not all. Women were also asked to rate each man’s overall attractiveness as

  • a short-term romantic partner (e.g., for a brief affair), and as a 
  • long-term romantic partner (e.g., for a committed relationship such as marriage)

The results bear out the notion that good dads are sexy.

A man’s affinity for infants had a positive effect on his overall attractiveness.

This was true for both short-term and long-term mate attractiveness.

However, when the researchers held other traits constant--like physical attractiveness and general kindness--the effect of an affinity for babies was significant only for a man’s appeal as a long-term mate.

In other words, being “baby-friendly” made men especially attractive as potential husbands.

How can woman infer “baby-friendliness” from a face?

The clue might be a more pleasant facial expression. Although the men were instructed to adopt neutral expressions in the photographs, impartial observers tended to rate the “baby-friendly” men as happier. It’s also possible that men who like babies have distinctive facial features. However, it’s not clear what these would be.

What about masculinity?

Previous studies have reported a trade-off between looking masculine and looking paternal. When male faces have been computer “morphed” to look hyper-masculine, viewers score these faces lower on such dimensions as “good father” and “quality parent” (Johnston et al 2001; Perrett et al 1998).

In this study, which used unaltered photographs of real men, researchers failed to find evidence of a trade-off. There was no correlation between a man’s testosterone levels and his affinity for babies.

However, the results might be culture-specific. Studies report that Japanese people interpret smiling faces as less masculine (Kawamura et al 2008). So perhaps happier-looking, more “baby-friendly” males would be perceived as less masculine in Japan.

Copyright © 2006-2021 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.

References: Sexy dads

Johnston VS, Hagel R, Franklin M, Fink B and Grammer K. 2001. Male facial attractiveness: evidence for hormone-mediated adaptive design. Evol. Hum. Behav. 22: 251-267.

Kawamura S, Komori M, and Miyamoto Y. 2008. Smiling reduces masculinity: principal component analysis applied to facial images. Perception. 37(11):1637-48.

Perrett DI, Lee KJ, Penton-Voak IS, Rowland D, Yoshikawa S, Burt DM, Henzi SP, Castles DL and Akamatsu S. 1998. Effects of sexual dimorphism on facial attractiveness. Nature 394: 884-887.

Roney JR Hanon KN, Durante KM, and Maestripieri D. 2006. Reading men's faces: women’s mate attractiveness judgements track men’s testosterone and interest in infants. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 273: 2169-2175.