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Attentional Prioritization of Infant Faces Is Limited to Own-Race Infants

John Hodsoll1,2

*, Kimberly A. Quinn2, Sara Hodsoll3

1 School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University of London, London, United Kingdom, 2 School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, United Kingdom, 3 Department of Psychology, University College London, London, United Kingdom


Background: Recent evidence indicates that infant faces capture attention automatically, presumably to elicit caregiving behavior from adults and leading to greater probability of progeny survival. Elsewhere, evidence demonstrates that people show deficiencies in the processing of other-race relative to own-race faces. We ask whether this other-race effect impacts on attentional attraction to infant faces. Using a dot-probe task to reveal the spatial allocation of attention, we investigate whether other-race infants capture attention.

Principal Findings: South Asian and White participants (young adults aged 18–23 years) responded to a probe shape appearing in a location previously occupied by either an infant face or an adult face; across trials, the race (South Asian/ White) of the faces was manipulated. Results indicated that participants were faster to respond to probes that appeared in the same location as infant faces than adult faces, but only on own-race trials.

Conclusions/Significance: Own-race infant faces attract attention, but other-race infant faces do not. Sensitivity to face- specific care-seeking cues in other-race kindenschema may be constrained by interracial contact and experience.

Citation: Hodsoll J, Quinn KA, Hodsoll S (2010) Attentional Prioritization of Infant Faces Is Limited to Own-Race Infants. PLoS ONE 5(9): e12509. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0012509

Editor: Jan Lauwereyns, Kyushu University, Japan

Received April 30, 2010; Accepted July 19, 2010; Published September 1, 2010

Copyright: 2010 Hodsoll et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Funding: This work was supported by a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Fellowship to the first author. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

  • *

    E-mail: John.Hodsoll@gmail.com


Human (and non-human) infants are wholly dependent for their survival on a parent or caregiver. Given this dependence, a mechanism by which infants can automatically attract caregiving behavior would promote their survival [1]. Lorenz coined the term kindenschema (‘‘baby schema’’) to describe one possible mechanism of this sort: a set of key features found in infant faces of virtually all species, including big eyes, a large and high forehead, rounded cheeks, and a small nose and mouth [2]. Indeed, stimuli that conform to this baby schema are likely to elicit a positive behavioral response [3], [4], and the perception of infant features activates brain structures associated with the reward system [5], [6]. Baby schemas appear to draw out the kinds of responses that would motivate caregiving behavior.

A consequence of a caregiving instinct is that baby schema should not only elicit positive responses, but may also receive attentional priority over the processing of other stimuli. Atten- tional prioritization of infants would enhance infant-caregiver interactions by facilitating caregivers’ ability to detect and respond to signs of emotional distress in the infant [7]. Evidence for just these effects on attention has been shown in two studies by Brosch and colleagues [8], [9]. Attentional capture by infant faces was shown in a spatial probe detection task; probe detection at locations primed by infant faces was facilitated relative to locations primed by adult faces.

In the current experiment, we investigated whether the preferential allocation of attention to infant faces would be influenced by the race of the faces and of the perceivers viewing them. A large body of research has shown that people show deficiencies in the processing of other-race relative to own-race faces. Specifically, people are better at discriminating, recognizing, and detecting changes in own-race faces than other-race faces [1012]. This ‘‘other-race effect’’ (ORE) appears to have an expertise component, such that people may be less sensitive to the facial cues that individuate members of other racial groups [13], [14], and/or less likely or able to use the holistic processing that supports own-race face individuation and recognition in the processing of other-race faces [15], [16]. Indeed, people with greater exposure to other-race individuals manifest weaker OREs, if they manifest them at all [17]. In addition, however, the ORE also appears to have a motivational component, such that processing of other-race but not own-race faces is truncated at the point where a race-specifying cue (e.g., skin tone) is detected in a face [18]. Irrespective of which (if either) mechanism is more responsible for the emergence of OREs, both accounts suggest that OREs result from the failure to differentiate among individual members of other-race categories.

The implications of this tendency to see other-race faces as interchangeable with each other are unclear in the context of attentional capture by kindenschema. On the one hand, the biological significance of kindenschema should guarantee that

PLoS ONE | www.plosone.org


September 2010 | Volume 5 | Issue 9 | e12509

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