How do you feel after looking at this picture? Do you want to cuddle it, squeeze it, look after it? Did you let out an involuntary “aww” or find yourself smiling unexpectedly?
As odd as it might sound, why we react this way to “cute” things, and how exactly we can define the word “cute” has actually been a topic for scientific discussion. In their attempt to put their finger on what exactly makes cuteness tick, two Austrian scientists, Konrad Lorenz and his successor Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfedlt came up with a list of the features which we consider “cute”. These include a large, round head, comparative to the body (like those cartoons of cats which are all head and no torso, or the maybe even like the Powerpuff Girls), large eyes, round cheeks and rounded, soft body features, with few harsh lines and rigid shapes. This is simple enough, but why do big eyes and round faces cause such a strong response in so many of us?
The answer seems to be in our evolution. These are all traits which are found in babies, our offspring, which as humans, we need to nurture and care for until they are able to look after themselves. In fact, the existence of our entire species is dependent on providing parental care to babies, the future of the species, who need to survive if our genes are going to be passed on. Unlike some species, whose young grow independent quickly, and receive little parental care, humans are one of the few who devote a lot of time to caring for their young. Macaque monkeys, for example, spend much less time with their young than humans do, and have been found to pay little attention to the faces of newborns, unlike humans who can “coo” and “aww” at babies all day long. This suggestst that this “cuteness response” isn’t actually present in all mammals, or even all primates.
To dedicate the increased level of care that humans show for their offspring compared to other animals, humans need a strong driving force to prompt them to look after their babies, rather than just despair at all the hard work they cause and give up altogether. Part of this is thought to be down to their cuteness, those huge eyes and round heads inspiring feelings of devotion and caring, and therefore motivating us to spend more time with them, and pay them more attention.
We’ve even investigated what happens in the brain when we see something cute. When MRI scans were used to monitor brain activity in people shown cute images, the nucleus accumbens, which is often described as the brain’s pleasure centre, shows an increase in activity, and higher levels of dopamine, a hormone which is associated with reward, are released.
However, as anyone who’s ever searched for pictures of kittens on the internet will know, cuteness doesn’t begin and end at human babies. The feelings provoked by cuteness extend to the offspring of other animals, making us “aww” at kittens, puppies, piglets, baby elephants, ducklings and more. Even adult dolphins, with their round faces and noses, unlike similar looking, but sharper, pointier sharks.
A study, published in 2012, looked at the “power of kawaii”, “kawaii” being a Japanese word which is often used to mean “cute”. The study investigated whether looking at cute images can affect performance in certain tasks, such as playing games, or attention while listening.
In one experiment, participants were asked to play a game similar to the children’s game, Operation, in which participants used tweezers to remove objects from small holes in a model patient’s body. The results showed that participants who had been shown cute images before playing the game had higher scores, and took longer to complete the task. This suggests that they paid closer attention to the task, taking more time to improve accuracy, after viewing the cute images. There are several possible reasons for this. One possible explanation is that viewing the cute images slowed the participants’ movements: in the same way that people will talk slower when speaking to infants, the participants moved more slowly to complete the task. Alternatively, the images may have improved the participants’ attentiveness, or might have made them more motivated to complete the task. This latter explanation involving motivation may relate to the nature of the task as a caregiving task, involving care of an imaginary patient, and the cuteness motivated the participants to act more on their caring feelings. These results might not have been found if they had been given a game which involved no caring aspect. Other experiments were also conducted, and overall the study implied that viewing cute images improved performance in tasks involving careful, or tender movements, suggesting that seeing something cute not only makes us feel more emotionally tender towards a cute animal, but can make us physically more careful too.
This isn’t the only power that cuteness can hold over us. Advertisers and fundraisers have latched on to our strong affections towards cuter, younger animals, compared to the often less cute, adult animals, and they often use this in their marketing strategies, showing young, adorable animals to convince us to adopt one, donate money or purchase their products. Just look at Baby Oleg in the Compare the Meerkat advertisements – who wouldn’t be swayed by those eyes? Yes, I was suckered into it too, and now my car is insured, and a meerkat in a onesie resides on my windowsill.
If you’re wondering how you can harvest the power of cute, perhaps to make you better at games or to convince people to be kinder to you, it might not be as easy as you think. As one of my lecturers found out when he inserted photos of kittens into his thermodynamics lecture, hoping they would make us pay more attention, there are some things that even cuteness can’t make simple.
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