The Baby Schema Scheme

Coming off the Metro on my first day in Paris, one of the most immediate sights was that of a woman and her two children sitting on the ground and holding a sign that read, “famille Syrienne”. Throughout the rest of the week, I saw countless homeless people and families, many with children under the age of three. Not only did the homeless often have children, but a large amount also had one or two dogs. While walking to class one day, I even saw a man with a puppy that couldn’t be over two months old. This sparked a question in me- does the appearance of a baby or puppy increase the chance of charitable giving from others?

Figure 1: Homeless Syrian woman with her baby

I believe most people would think the answer to that question is obvious; if given the option to donate to homeless person with a baby or a homeless person without, the logical decision, in terms of effectiveness of the donation, would lean towards the family. However, if we put aside logic-based decision making and focus on spur-of-the-moment choices, would having a baby or puppy make a difference?

Before I did research on experiments from the past, I conducted my own small observational study. At the Bastille Métro Station (Figure 2), I observed the number of people who gave money to both a woman with a baby (Figure 1) and a woman without for five minutes each. Out of 63 people who passed adjacent to the woman with a baby, 4 gave her change, for a percentage of 6.35%. Out of 56 people who passed adjacent to the woman without a baby, only 1 person gave change, for a percentage of 1.79%. Although this observation cannot be statistically analyzed to imply much, as it was a very short study with very few variables controlled, it seems as though the presence of the baby had helped to increase the chance of a donation.

Figure 2: Location of Bastille Station in Paris

In order to find out more information on the neurobiological processes involved in this difference, I read through a study performed by Glocker et al. (2009) on how the “baby schema” modulates the reward system in nulliparous women (women who have never given birth). The baby schema is the physical features of babies, such as a round face and big eyes, that motivates caretaking behavior and attracts attention. This short article modified different aspects of baby schema and observed the levels of activation in associated brain regions in 16 women in their twenties. Glocker et al. hypothesized that an increase in the baby schema “cuteness rating” would cause an increase in blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) fMRI brain activity in the mesocorticolimbic system, which is comprised of the dopaminergic midbrain, nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Figure 3: Examples of high, unmanipulated, and low baby schema faces used in the study by Glocker et al.

Using adjusted images of infant faces, such as in Figure 3, they found a linear increase in activation due to baby schema in the left anterior cingulate cortex, left precuneus, left fusiform gyrus, and right nucleus accumbens (Figure 4). The researchers then went on to discuss their findings in relation to the functional properties of these regions, specifically the nucleus accumbens, precuneus, and fusiform gyrus.

Figure 4: (A) Results of fMRI BOLD testing by Glocker et al. Areas of interest include left anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), left precuneus (PCu), left fusiform gyrus (FG), and right nucleus accumbens (NAcc). (B) Increases in BOLD percent signal change due to increased baby schema.

They described the nucleus accumbens as being linked to reward-based behavior, and that its activation could release approach behavior towards infants. In addition, the nucleus accumbens is a part of the striatum, which has been associated with processes such as mutual cooperation, charitable donation, and social bonding. The activation of this region due to seeing a baby’s face could influence women into donating money. Another brain region of interest was that of the precuneus, which is commonly associated with attention, suggesting that baby schema brings and holds attention to an infant’s face. Finally, the fusiform gyrus plays a large role in facial perception, and may encode baby schema features to send along to the nucleus accumbens to appoint motivational value.

Overall, the study does a good job in identifying the regions of brain that are sensitive to baby schema. However, it was limited to women in their twenties who have never given birth. This category of people is only a small percentage of those who encounter homelessness, so it doesn’t fully answer my question. Despite its limited conclusions, Glocker et al. discusses how other studies have shown that, while women most likely are more responsive to the baby schema than men, they both process it similarly.

Although this article was informative on the effects of the human baby schema, I was interested in the subject of puppies as well. So, I read an article titled “Sweet Puppies and Cute Babies: Perceptual Adaptation to Babyfacedness Transfers across Species” by Golle et al. The researchers used a perceptual adaptation paradigm to test whether the evaluation of cuteness is species-specific or exists across multiple species. Their first experiment involved subjects rating 78 babies’ faces on a scale of 1-6. The 5 least cute and cutest babies were used as “adaptor” stimuli. All remaining faces were individually paired (one cute and one less cute) and morphed together. The subjects were then tested in three respective parts: rating the morphed faces in cuteness, looking at the adaptor faces carefully, and then rating the morphed faces again. In general, the subjects rated the babies as cuter during the second round of rating, after the adaptation phase. From this, it can be reasoned that the brain grows accustomed to a range of cuteness. During a second experiment, the researchers tested if a similar adaptation can occur when shown faces of dogs.

Figure 5: A homeless man with two dogs in Paris

Using the same procedure, but swapping the human infant adaptor stimuli with cute and less cute puppy faces, Golle et al. found that the adaptation of puppy faces similarly influenced the perception of baby faces to have an increased cuteness value during the second round of rating. From this data, the researchers concluded that facial cuteness adaptation transfers across species and induces the same “cuteness decoding” process (a.k.a. the effects of the baby schema found in the first study). They gather that human beings have a general instinct to take care of newborns of the same or different species- a desire that stems from the cuteness of the baby.

Figure 6: My dog, Buddy. What cuteness rating would you give him?

From these two studies, it can be concluded that both babies and puppies’ cuteness causes an activation in certain areas of the brain associated with caretaking, attention, and charitable giving. This in turn can lead to an increased influx of donations towards homeless with young children or dogs compared to those without. So, next time you give money to a homeless family, what might seem to be a simple altruistic decision might actually be a series of complicated facial analysis!

References:

Glocker ML, Langleben DD, Ruparel K, Loughead JW, Valdez JN, Griffin MD, Sachser N, Gur RC (2009) Baby schema modulates the brain reward system in nulliparous women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 106(22):9115-9119.

Golle J, Lisibach S, Mast FW, Lobmaier JS (2013) Sweet puppies and cute babies: perceptual adaptation to babyfacedness transfers across spepcies. PLoS ONE 8(3):e58248

Figures 1 and 6 were taken by me

Figures 2 and 5 were obtained from a search in Creative Commons:

Figure2: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/74/Paris_department_land_cover_location_map.svg/2000px-Paris_department_land_cover_location_map.svg.png

Figure5: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Homeless_puppies%2C_Paris%2C_October_2008.jpg

Figures 3 and 4 were taken from the study by Glocker et al.

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