Kids Don’t Trust Ugliness

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Babies, I am sorry to say, have done a fair amount of bubble-bursting in recent months, as studies have revealed the deviousness beneath the wide-eyed, chubby exteriors. We now know, for example, that these seeming beacons of innocence are not above being bribed, and that they use their cuteness to manipulate their way into our affections.

And, hey, while we’re at it, kids aren’t so pure, either. In a lot of ways, they’re just smaller vessels for all of the vices and flaws we have as adults. They’re decently good liars, or at least good enough to get away with it. They can be pretty mean. And recent research suggests that they may also be surprisingly shallow: A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that children, like adults, inherently trust good-looking people more than unattractive ones.

For the study, a team of Chinese researchers recruited groups of 8-, 10-, and 12-year-olds, with 33 to 34 kids in each group (a similarly sized group of college students served as a control). These pint-size volunteers viewed a series of 200 unfamiliar faces, categorizing each one as trustworthy, untrustworthy, or neither; a month later, they came back to view the same faces, this time rating them on attractiveness.

Across age groups, the two judgments were closely linked — the more attractive faces, in general, were also considered more trustworthy. It’s one more in a pile of similar findings about how kids make appearance-based judgments: Past research has shown, for example, that preschool-age children seek out more attractive peers as playmates, and that they prefer to rely on better-looking people as sources of information. Even kids as young as 3 can read a person’s face to make assumptions about their character.

This particular study, though, had a few complicating factors. Within each age group, judgments about a face became more consistent — and more similar to the adult control group’s assessments — as the kids got older, a pattern that was more pronounced for trustworthiness than it was for beauty. The link between the two traits was also strongest among the adults.

One reason for these age-related differences, the researchers offered, may be that kids just have less “facial experience” when they’re younger. “Unlike adults, children participants are more likely to use unique standards (such as faces that resemble their own or the ‘look’ of an important person) to judge facial trustworthiness rather than the shared standards used across other raters,” they wrote. But over time, those standards, well, standardize, as their cognitive and social abilities develop. It’s partly a numbers game: The older we get, the more faces we see, and the more we hone our ability to read them.

And, for that matter, the longer we’ve been around, the more time we’ve had to absorb cultural cues about attractiveness. “The ‘beauty is good’ impression may gradually develop through children’s daily experiences in witnessing the association between attractive individuals and trustworthy behaviors,” the authors wrote. As Science of Us has previously noted, beautiful people have it easier in many ways: They tend to be better paid, more confident, and better liked — even by the tiniest of humans. Kids, it seems, are just judge-y little adults in waiting.