2011. Vol.2, No.9, 931-935
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/psych.2011.29140
No Race Effect (ORE) in the Automatic Orienting toward
Baby Faces: When Ethnic Group does Not Matter
Alice Mado Proverbio, Valeria De Gabriele,
Mirella Manfredi, Roberta Adorni
Department of Psychology, University of Milano-Bicocca, Milan, Italy.
Received September 14th, 2011; revised October 17th, 2011; accepted November 21st, 2011.
It was shown that own (vs. other) race baby faces capture attention automatically whereas other race babies do
not (Hodsoll et al., 2010). Other literature provided evidence of an innate preferential response to baby faces
(baby schema effect). We investigated whether infant (vs. adult) faces automatically attracted attention (exoge-
nous orienting), and whether this was modulated by ethnicity. 30 students took part in this study. Their task was
to decide whether a lateralized target was upright or inverted. Targets were preceded by 400 baby or adult (Cau-
casian vs. non-Caucasian) faces shortly flashed in the same location, thus acting as spatial cues (valid/invalid).
Results showed no effect of the ethnic group but of face age in speeding up RTs to targets preceded by baby
faces. Significant costs for invalid locations cued by baby faces were also found (difficulty in disengagement).
The data indicate how visual attention is literally captured by baby schema, independent of baby race.
Keywords: Baby Schema, Fac e Processing, ORE Effect, Parental Instinct, Spatial Cueing, Automatic Orienting
of Attention
It is known that baby faces have stronger attentional capture
capabilities than adult faces, or other visual objects. An auto-
matic orienting of attention is observable when visual targets
are preceded by baby (vs. adult) faces (Brosch et al., 2007;
Hodsoll et al., 2010) or when voluntary attention is directed
elsewhere and non-target infant (vs. adult) faces are presented
(Hodsoll et al., 2010; Proverbio et al., 2011). The whole set of
pedomorphic characteristics typical of an infantile face is called
“baby schema” and includes a round face, high forehead, big
eyes, small nose and mouth, chubby cheeks, and a large head as
compared to the baby’s shoulder (Lorenz, 1971).
Baby schema attention capturing effects are measurable, for
example, in terms of detection times to targets presented in a
space location preceded by a baby face (Brosch et al., 2008;
Brosch et al., 2007). In some cases there is a dot to be detected,
the so called “dot probe task” (Brosch et al., 2007), in other
cases a triangle has to be evaluated to establish its orientation
(pointing upward or downward) (Hodsoll et al., 2010).
Baby faces are perceived as cute and this is thought to in-
crease the adult motivation to take care of infants (Glocker et
al., 2009). Glocker and colleagues (Glocker et al., 2009) using
functional magnetic resonance imaging found that perception of
baby faces activates the nucleus accumbens, a structure of the
mesocorticolimbic system mediating reward processing and
pleasure perception. Other neuroimaging studies have investi-
gated the neural circuits subtending the brain response to infant
as opposed to adult faces identifying the neural circuit by which
baby schema promotes human caregiving. This system includes,
besides the accumbens nucleus, the fusiform gyrus (face fusi-
form area) and the medial orbitofrontal cortex (Kringelbach et
al., 2008; Leibenluft et al., 2004; Nitschke et al., 2004; Prover-
bio et al., 2011). The response to infant faces seems independ-
ent of attention and is thought to be at the basis of parental
instinct in humans (Kringelbach et al . , 2008 ).
Some findings indicate that the special response to baby
faces is limited to infants and toddlers, and it significantly de-
creases as children age increases. For example, a reduction in
the amplitude of reward related orbito-frontal N2 ERP response
to faces of pre-puberal children (as compared to infants) (Prov-
erbio et al., 2011) was recently demonstrated. Again, it has
been estimated that the perceived cuteness diminished after the
age of 4.5 years (Luo et al., 2011) when the consistent baby
growth significantly alters the infant face proportions.
The assumption underlying the concept of baby schema is
that the adults’ releasing response is regulated by a universal
instinct devoted to the human species preservation, with the
evolutionary function of enhancing offspring survival, although
it also extends to juvenile animals and puppies. Therefore it
shouldn’t be diminished or limited by the diversities of facial
characteristics typical of distinct human ethnic groups. Not-
withstanding that, it has been recently shown that attentional
capturing effects of infant faces (for the viewers) are limited to
infants of own race (Hodsoll et al., 2010). According to the
authors, own race baby faces do attract attention, but other-race
infants do not, which is a quite strong conclusion. Hodsoll and
colleagues (Hodsoll et al., 2010) interpreted this effect in the
light of the literature on the so-called other-race effect (ORE),
which consists in faster and better performance in race catego-
rization tasks for own race (OR) than other race faces (Rhodes
et al., 2009; Walker and Tanaka, 2003). This advantage of OR
faces has been described as due to a difference in neural proc-
essing of OR vs. different race faces. The hypothesis is that the
neural mechanism processing OR faces would be especially
finely tuned, as indexed by N170 component of ERPs (Vizioli
et al., 2011), probably as a product of visual experience and
familiarity (Caldara et al., 2004).
Not being convinced that the baby schema advantage was
dependent by perceptual expertise or familiarity, being present
also in sexually immature children (Sanefuji et al., 2007), or
directed to puppies of other species (Sanefuji et al., 2007), we
decided to further investigate this matter.
In order to have a direct measure of attentional allocation, an
exogenous orienting of attention paradigm (Mulckhuyse and
Theeuwes, 2010; Posner, 1980) was devised where human
faces (of both babies and adults) acted as cues, and a little tree,
which could be upright or inverted in orientation, acted as tar-
get stimulus. A short ISI was chosen to avoid the inhibition of
return phenomenon. Indeed, it has been shown that the sub-
liminal perception of faces can attract attention, thus improving
target processing at the cued location (Brosch et al., 2008;
Pourtois et al., 2005). Had baby faces stronger attentional cap-
ture capabilities than adult faces, this would result in faster RTs
to targets preceded by baby faces. Furthermore, we manipulated
the ethnic group of faces by presenting 200 own ethnicity and
200 other ethnicity faces. Had the ethnic group (also called
“race” in the literature) an effect on the attentional grabbing of
attention, we would be able to quantify it by comparing OR
with the other race condition.
Thirty healthy undergraduate and graduate students (7 men
and 23 women) participated in this study as unpaid volunteers.
They earned academic credit for their participation. Their mean
age was 26.9 years. All had normal or corrected-to-normal
vision and reported no history of neurological illness or drug
abuse. Their right-handedness and right ocular dominance were
confirmed using the Italian version of the Edinburgh Handed-
ness Inventory, a laterality preference questionnaire. The ex-
periment was conducted with the understanding and written
consent of each participant according to the Declaration of
Helsinki (BMJ 1991; 302: 1194) and in compliance with APA
ethical standards for the treatment of human volunteers (1992,
American Psychological Association). The experimental pro-
tocol was approved by the ethical committee of the University
of Milano-Bicocca.
One participant was excluded from data analysis for her bad
performance (committed more than 20% of errors).
Stimuli and Procedure
The stimulus set comprised 400 color pictures of infant faces
(200) and male and female adult faces (200) of comparable
luminance (see Figure 1). Because all infants were anonymous,
their age was actually unknown but, on the basis of infant ap-
pearance, we estimated that it was lower than 24 months. Ex-
cept for the infant category (for which sex was sometimes in-
distinguishable), adult faces depicted an equal number of fe-
males (100) and males (100). All people were smiling or show-
ing a positive facial expression.
Half individuals (200) had Caucasian somatic traits, whereas
the other half (200) were non-Caucasian people (Black or
Afro-American, American Indian, Asian, etc.). Stimulus size
was 7.5 × 9 cm that is 3˚46'17" × 4˚31'32" of visual angle (193
× 225 pixels). Faces of various sex, age and ethnic group were
presented randomly mixed to the left or the right of the fixation
point (along the horizontal meridian), at the eccentricity of 3
cm: 1.5˚ to the left or right of fixation point. Each face was
presented for 200 ms with an ISI of 200 ms between the face
and the target. The colored drawing of a tree (same size and
spatial distribution of face stimuli) was used as target stimulus.
Baby Adult
Et hn ic
Figure 1.
Example of stimuli from the two categories (same vs. different ethnic
group), and age classes (babies vs. adult s).
The tree could be presented in its standard orientation (upright)
or downward (inverted orientation). The inter-trial interval was
1300 - 1500 ms. The outer background was dark gray.
Participants were comfortably seated in a darkened and
acoustically shielded test area, facing a computer screen located
114 cm from their eyes. Their task was to decide whether the
tree presented right after the face was upright or inverted in
orientation by pressing a key with the index finger (of either the
left or right hand) to answer yes and with the middle finger to
answer no. All faces had to be ignored. The two hands were
used alternately during the recording session. The order of the
hand and task conditions was counterbalanced across subjects.
Participants were instructed to fixate on the center of the screen,
where a small transparent circle served as fixation point, and to
avoid any eye or body movements during the recording session.
Data Treatment and Analysis
For each participant reaction times (RTs) to targets, hit and
error percentages (correct responses and incorrect categoriza-
tions) were recorded. Omissions were very infrequent, only 11
out of 29 Ss committed a few omissions, and omission rate was
0.31% (1.24/400 targets). Therefore omissions did not undergo
statistical treatment. Error rate was about 4.5%. Error percent-
ages were converted to arcsine values and subjected to a
four-way repeated-measure ANOVA. Factors were: face age
(baby, adult), ethnic group (same, different), cue validity (valid,
invalid), target orientation (upright, inverted).
Reaction times faster than 140 ms, or exceeding the mean
value ±2 standard deviations were discarded. Behavioral data
were subjected to multifactorial repeated-measures ANOVA
with four within factors. They were: face age (baby, adult),
ethnic group (same, different), cue validity (valid, invalid),
target orientation (upright, inverted).
The ANOVA performed on error rates indicated a significant
interaction of validity X target orientation (F(1, 28) = 16.1; p <
0.0005), demonstrating significantly fewer errors to valid than
invalid targets for the standard orientation, as confirmed by
post-hoc comparisons (see Figure 2).
The further interaction of face age X cue validity (F(1, 28) =
5.33; p < 0.02) showed greater costs for the invalid trials when
cues were baby rather than adult face (see Figure 3), as proved
by post-hoc comparisons among means.
RTs analysis showed the significa nt effect of face age (F(1, 28)
= 8.1, p < 0.0075), with faster RTs to targets preceded by baby
(502.8, SE = 9.99 ms) than adult faces (506 ms, SE = 9.77).
The further interaction of validity X orientation (F(1, 28) = 9.73;
p < 0.0045), and relative post-hoc comparisons, indicated the
presence of faster RTs to upright targets presented at valid than
invalid locations (p < 0.01), whereas no benefits were observed
to validly-cued inverted trees, possibly because of a ceiling
effect (see Figure 4).
No effect whatsoever of ethnic group (or “race”) was found,
both in error rates and RTs, nor per se, or in interaction with
other variables.
Both response speed and error analyses showed an effect of
spatial cueing for faces presented at valid locations, with sig-
nificantly faster RTs and fewer errors at the cued location. The
interaction of cue validity and target orientation indicated the
presence of benefits for the attended location (both in terms of
faster RTS and fewer errors) only for upright trees. Quite inter-
estingly the error analysis showed that when attention was at-
tracted to baby faces (the spatial cue was a baby face) and the
trial was invalid (a re-orienting of attention was required to-
ward the opposite visual field) costs were much stronger that
Figure 2.
Error percentages (arcsin transformed) recorded as a function of cue
validity and target orientatio n (N = 29).
Figure 3.
Error percentages (arcsin transformed) recorded as a function of cue
validity and face age (N = 29). This figure displays strong costs for
invalid locations cued by baby faces (difficulty in disengagement). The
data indicate how visual attention is literally captured by baby schema.
Figure 4.
Mean reaction times (in ms) recorded as a function of cue validity and
target orientation (N = 29). Overall RTs were faster to baby than adult
faces (regardless of ethnic group).
when the invalid cue was an adult face, thus suggesting a diffi-
culty in attentional disengagement. These data support the hy-
pothesis that baby faces have powerful attention-capture capa-
bilities (Brosch et al., 2007), which resist attentional realloca-
tion (Proverbio et al., 2011).
Our data also showed a strong effect of the face age per se in
speeding up response times to targets, regardless of visual field
of presentation, and ethnic group of face. In a similar study,
where neutral and affective faces were bilaterally presented, it
was found a greater d’ in response to targets preceded by baby
than adult faces (Brosch et al., 2008), associated with an in-
crease in the P1 amplitude of ERPs recorded to valid trials. The
results were interpreted in terms of an early sensory modulation
due to attentional capturing mechanism for biologically rele-
vant stimuli, similar for baby faces and aversive stimuli (fearful
Our data showed no effect whatsoever of the ethnic group of
the faces, nor per se, nor in interaction with age face. RTs were
virtually identical for faces of all ethnic groups (Caucasian=
504.3 ms, other groups 504.4 ms) thus suggesting a complete
lack of ORE effect, not only in the attentional capabilities of
baby faces, but also in the spatial validity effects recorded for
adult faces. It must be considered that the ORE effect has been
interpreted in the literature has strongly linked to a difference in
the perceptual familiarity of own vs. other races, especially in
categorization task, based on featural analysis (Caldara et al.,
2004; Rhodes et al., 2009; Vizioli et al., 2011; Walker & Ta-
naka, 2003). In the case of the present investigation, no analysis
of face properties was required. Furthermore, a detailed face
featural analysis was made more difficult by the short presenta-
tion time (200 ms) and by the immediate presentation of the
target to be responded to. Therefore the baby face advantage
has to be considered an automatic and prioritarized response of
the visual system to biologically relevant signals. And indeed a
recent ERP study (Proverbio et al., 2011) provided evidence of
an increased visual N170 response to infant than adult faces
(especially in the female brain), thus supporting the previous
literature about a female preference for the image of infants
below 24 months (Proverbio et al., 2006).
At this regard, it cannot be excluded that some previous data
showing an effect of “race” on the response to baby faces might
be partly due to the specific faces used in that study as stimuli,
and their scarce number (i.e., only 8 “other race” and 8 “own
race” baby faces were used in the study by Hodsall and co-
workers (Hodsoll et al., 2010).
In our study, RTs were much faster in response to upright
than inverted trees, which is a rather common finding in cogni-
tive psychology literature (Shepard & Metzler, 1971), and has
to do with object familiarity, mental rotation, and same/differ-
ent effects (Logan, 1980). Target orientation also interacted
with cue validity, possibly because the “different” response
(“no”, with the middle finger), negatively interacted, at higher
order cognitive level, with the spatially-dependent attentional
advantage for the cued location, thus requiring the additional,
time-consuming, involvement of control systems, (such as, for
example, the anterior cingulate and other prefrontal structures
involved in conflict resolution, response monitoring and action
regulation), but further investigation is certainly needed to get
more light on this matter.
In summary, this study provides no evidence that faces (nei-
ther infantile nor adult) are processed differently as a function
of their ethnic group, (also called “race”, in some literature),
when it comes to automatic attentional orienting. However, a
powerful bias toward baby faces was found, with stronger cue-
ing validity effects for baby than adult faces, thus further sug-
gesting the existence of a fundamental social instinct that may
be at the basis of human offspring caregiving. Other neuroi-
maging data, regarding the preferential auditory processing, in
adults (and especially in women), of infant vocalizations such
as laughing and crying, do support this hypothesis (Sander et al.,
2007; Seifritz et al., 2003).
The study was funded by FAR2011 grant from University of
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