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Developmental, Emotion, Sex and gender

Parenthood seems to have an opposite effect on how men and women perceive babies’ emotions

Men and women who weren’t parents didn’t differ in the way that they rated the babies’ emotions.

03 February 2016

By Christian Jarrett

In our part of the world, a growing proportion of fathers are rolling up their sleeves and getting involved in early child care. This has prompted increased interest from psychologists in any similarities or differences in the way that mothers and fathers interact with their children. One finding is that fathers tend to engage in more physical play, whereas mothers spend more time playing with toys and interacting socially. A new study in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology takes a fresh approach, asking whether mothers and fathers perceive babies' emotional expressions differently. The results, while tentative, suggest that parenthood may lead women to become more sensitive to babies' emotions, while men actually become less sensitive.

Christine Parsons at the University of Oxford and her colleagues asked 110 women and men to look at and rate 50 images of 10 babies expressing strongly positive and negative emotions, muted positive and negative emotions, or exhibiting a neutral expression. There were 29 mothers (average age 29), 26 fathers (average age 28), and 29 women who weren't mothers (average age 26), and 26 men who weren't fathers (average age 28). The parents all had infants aged less than 18 months. The participants rated the babies' emotions by using a vertical sliding scale from "very positive" to "very negative".

Men and women who weren't parents didn't differ in the way that they rated the babies' emotions. In contrast, among the parents, mothers tended to rate the babies' positive emotions more positively and their strongest negative emotions more negatively, compared with the fathers. Moreover, mothers tended to give more extreme ratings to the babies' emotions than women who weren't mothers, whereas fathers showed a tendency to rate the babies' emotions as less intense than men who weren't fathers.

Taken together, the researchers said this suggests that parenthood affects women's and men's perceptions of infant emotions differently: "It may be that motherhood increases women's perception of the intensity of emotion in infant faces, whereas fatherhood decreases men's perception," they said. These results are preliminary and there's a need now for longitudinal research that follows the same participants over time; the current study also doesn't speak to why this gender difference emerges after parenthood. However, the researchers speculated that "If mothers and fathers [really do] perceive the same infant emotional expressions in different ways, this may contribute to the sex differences in interaction styles that are frequently observed."

Further reading

Parsons, C., Young, K., Jegindoe Elmholdt, E., Stein, A., & Kringelbach, M. (2016). Interpreting infant emotional expressions: parenthood has differential effects on men and women The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1-19 DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2016.1141967