The director of the U of A Population Research Lab, Harrell made his conclusions after leading an experiment in which 862 caretaker-children combinations were furtively observed in 14 supermarkets in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Caretaker neglect was measured according to how often the caretakers or their charges, estimated to be between one and seven years-old, wandered out of sight or were more than 10 feet away from each other--too far to prevent most accidents.
Harrell found that an average of 14 per cent of the caretakers, with or without wedding rings, lost sight of their charges at least once. However, young attractive female caretakers without rings lost sight of children 19 per cent of the time, and young attractive males lost sight 25 per cent of the time, a "statistically significant" jump, Harrell said.
"Past research suggests that the absence of a wedding ring in North American culture is indicative of a lack of emotional commitment to marriage," said Harrell. "Our research shows that it may also be an indicator of a lack of a commitment to one's family, including care of the children."
"It is our belief that an interest in establishing social, sexual or emotional ties outside of marriage may have the inadvertent consequence of diminishing attentiveness to children," Harrell added. "And it's not surprising that this distraction occurs even in a mundane setting like a supermarket, which is more than a place to purchase bananas and cereal. It can also be a place for social encounters and maybe even a romantic rendezvous."
Harrell presented the results of his research at the 17th Annual Warren E. Kalbach Conference in Demography, held recently at the University of Alberta.
A year ago, at the same conference, Harrell started a media storm when he suggested, based on similar research, that parents are more neglectful of unattractive children than they are of attractive children. This year, the findings from the study last year were replicated, with unattractive children being more neglected, particularly those older than three years of age.
Also this year, Harrell found that, among caretakers wearing wedding rings, the unattractive ones were more neglectful than the attractive ones.
"The unattractive parents could have health problems or psychological troubles that distract them from their parental duties," he said, adding that the observations are consistent with past evolutionary research on attractiveness and evolutionary fitness.
Harrell noted that the ratings of both parental and child attractiveness were "remarkably consistent" throughout the study, even though the observers made their judgments independently.
"I know these results may sound harsh, but suffice to say it's not good at all to let a child out of sight at a supermarket," he said. "We're just trying to determine the causes of accidents, because it's important to be aware of what happens and why it happens so that we can take steps to improve our behavior."