Monday, May 16, 2005

How do Parents Treat Good-Looking Children?

I thought that I had mistakenly deleted this post, but found it:

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Probably a spurious correlation:
Parents would certainly deny it, but Canadian researchers have made a startling assertion: parents take better care of pretty children than they do ugly ones.

Researchers at the University of Alberta carefully observed how parents treated their children during trips to the supermarket. They found that physical attractiveness made a big difference.

The researchers noted if the parents belted their youngsters into the grocery cart seat, how often the parents' attention lapsed and the number of times the children were allowed to engage in potentially dangerous activities like standing up in the shopping cart. They also rated each child's physical attractiveness on a 10-point scale.

The findings, not yet published, were presented at the Warren E. Kalbach Population Conference in Edmonton, Alberta.

When it came to buckling up, pretty and ugly children were treated in starkly different ways, with seat belt use increasing in direct proportion to attractiveness. When a woman was in charge, 4 percent of the homeliest children were strapped in compared with 13.3 percent of the most attractive children. The difference was even more acute when fathers led the shopping expedition - in those cases, none of the least attractive children were secured with seat belts, while 12.5 percent of the prettiest children were.

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Dr. Robert Sternberg, professor of psychology and education at Yale, said he saw problems in Dr. Harrell's method and conclusions, for example, not considering socioeconomic status.

"Wealthier parents can feed, clothe and take care of their children better due to greater resources," Dr. Sternberg said, possibly making them more attractive. "The link to evolutionary theory is speculative."
Yes, not controlling for socioeconomic status strikes me as a huge flaw. Researchers elsewhere have found that (a) beautiful people tend to earn more, and conversely, (b) richer people (esp. men) tend to attract more beautiful partners. Consider this study from the American Economic Review (also available here):
Holding constant demographic and labor-market characteristics, plain people earn less than people of average looks, who earn less than the good-looking. The penalty for plainness is 5 to 10 percent, slightly larger than the premium for beauty. The effects are slightly larger for men than women; but unattractive women are less likely than others to participate in the labor force and are more likely to be married to men with unexpectedly low human capital.
The same researchers found a similar effect for good-looking lawyers. (!) Other scholars have seen similar results, including findings that obese people earn lower wages.

So there might be reason to suspect a correlation between good-looking children and wealth. At the same time, other research has shown that low-income people are "less likely to engage in activities that help foster healthy child development." Moreover, low-income people are twice as likely to be depressed, and depressed people do worse at taking care of children:
Parental depression can lead to harsh or negative interactions with the child, lack of interest or follow-through on important prevention activities such as use of car seats and child-proofing, and limited school readiness for children.
All of which goes to say that it would be wise to control for socio-economic status before proclaiming that "parents take better care of pretty children than they do ugly ones."


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