The effect of female reproductive hormones on the perception of cuteness
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The findings of two recent studies suggest that cuteness sensitivity may be modulated by the female reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone, with women showing greater sensitivity than men (Sprengelmeyer et al 2009; Lobmaier et al 2010) and women using hormonal contraceptives showing a greater sensitivity than naturally cycling women. Post-menopausal women were found to perform at the same level as men (Sprengelmeyer et al 2009). The present study aimed to extend these findings by determining if an equivalent pattern of differences occurs in the motivation to view pictures of infant faces. To investigate this question, men, naturally cycling women and women using oral contraceptives completed a key-press task in which they were able to increase or decrease the amount of time they spent viewing infant faces that varied in gender, expression and age. Following this, they rated the same set of faces for cuteness. Because levels of estrogen and progesterone fluctuate over the course of the menstrual cycle and over a month of oral contraceptive use, naturally cycling women and women using oral contraceptives completed the experiment at different times of their menstrual cycle or oral contraceptive regimen to determine the effects of cycle phase (menstrual, late follicular, luteal) and pill stage (pill phase, pill-break) on the level of key-pressing. Three key findings were made. First, there is no gender difference in the cuteness judgments of infant faces suggesting that cuteness is a universal construct, perceived in the same way by all. Second, there is a strong correlation between cuteness rating and viewing time, providing evidence that the incentive value of an infant face is modulated by cuteness. And third, there is no evidence that the incentive value of cuteness is hormonally modulated. Regardless of gender, pill phase or cycle phase, the participants showed no difference in their motivation to view the infant faces. From these findings it appears that whilst sensitivity to cuteness in infant faces may be modulated by estrogen and progesterone, the motivation to view cute infant faces is not. It was concluded that these different components of cuteness processing evolved separately for different purposes associated with infant care.
Thesis, MPhil Master of Philosophy
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