Among humans, simply looking at infants can activate affiliative and nurturant behaviors. However, it remains unknown whether mere exposure to infants also activates other aspects of the caregiving motivational system, such as generalized defensiveness in the absence of immediate threats. Here, we demonstrate that simply viewing faces of infants (especially from the ingroup) may heighten vigilance against social threats and support for institutions that purportedly maintain security. Across two studies, participants viewed and rated one among several image types (between-subjects design): Infants, adult males, adult females, and puppies in Study 1, and infants of varying racial/ethnic groups (including one’s ingroup) and puppies in Study 2. Following exposure to one of these image types, participants completed measures of intergroup bias from a range of outgroups that differed in perceived threat, belief in a dangerous world, right-wing authoritarianism and social-political conservatism (relative to liberalism). In Study 1 (United States), stronger affiliative reactions to images of infants (but not adults or puppies) predicted stronger perceptions of a dangerous world, endorsement of right-wing authoritarianism, and support for social-political conservatism (relative to liberalism). Study 2 (Italy) revealed that exposure to images of ingroup infants (compared to outgroup infants) increased intergroup bias against outgroups that are characterized as threatening (immigrants and Arabs) and increased conservatism. These findings suggest a predisposed preparedness for social vigilance in the mere suggested presence of infants (e.g., viewing images) even in the absence of salient external threats.
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