Harrell's findings are based on an observational study of children and shopping cart safety. With the approval of management at 14 different supermarkets, Harrell's team of researchers observed parents and their two to five-year-old children for 10 minutes each, noting if the child was buckled into the grocery-cart seat, and how often the child wandered more than 10 feet away. The researchers independently graded each child on a scale of one to 10 on attractiveness.
Findings showed that 1.2 per cent of the least attractive children were buckled in, compared with 13.3 per cent of the most attractive youngsters. The observers also noticed the less attractive children were allowed to wander further away and more often from their parents. In total, there were 426 observations at the 14 supermarkets.
Harrell, who has been researching shopping cart safety since 1990 and has published a total of 13 articles on the topic, figures his latest results are based on a parent's instinctive Darwinian response: we're unconsciously more likely to lavish attention on attractive children simply because they're our best genetic material.
"Attractiveness as a predictor of behaviour, especially parenting behaviour, has been around a long time," said Harrell, a father of five and a grandfather of three. "Most parents will react to these results with shock and dismay. They'll say, 'I love all my kids, and I don't discriminate on the basis of attractiveness.' The whole point of our research is that people do."
Dr. Harrell is the executive director of the Population Research Lab at the University of Alberta. He can be reached at 780-492-4659 or firstname.lastname@example.org.