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Is mother's love unconditional?

June 23, 2009 |  5:00 pm

Most of humanity rests comfortably on the idea that even if no one else loves us, our mothers still will. But a new study casts some uncomfortable doubt on that assertion. It suggests women may be biologically programmed to love children who are healthy and most likely to live.

Researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., showed 13 healthy men and 14 healthy women pictures of 80 infants. Fifty of the infants were normal-appearing and 30 had abnormal facial features, such as cleft palate, skin disorders or Down syndrome. The participants were given four seconds to view each photo but could choose to extend or shorten that viewing time. They were also asked to rate the attractiveness of each infant.

The study found that women were more likely than men to reject the unattractive babies. The attractiveness ratings the men gave to normal-appearing babies were also significantly lower than those given by the women. The women made a greater effort to avoid looking at the abnormal babies.

It could be that women have an evolutionary need to pay more attention to normal-looking infants. In a time of limited resources, mothers might have diverted their resources away from sick infants toward the healthy children who were more likely to live, the researchers said.

"Women may be more sensitized to aesthetic defects and may be more prone to reject unattractive kids," the first author of the paper, Rinah Yamamoto, said in a news release. "Men do not appear to be as motivated. They didn't expend the same effort."

Most of the women I know whose children have health problems or physical abnormalities are the most loving mothers around. However, there is some support for this evolutionary theory in real life. Studies of neglected or abandoned children show they are more likely to have a flaw in their appearance.

The study is published in PLoS ONE.

-- Shari Roan