The science of cute

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Anthropology / Evolution / Psychology

As cute as a…  button? Puppy? Kitten? Panda cub? There’s no shortage of things we respond to by saying ‘Awwww, that’s so cute’. But what is it exactly that we find cute, and why? And why do we often feel an overwhelming urge to squeeze cute things?

Oh kawaii desu ne!? Japanese have taken cute to a whole new level. Image credit Tomohiro Ohtake via Flickr

Oh! kawaii desu ne!? Japanese have taken cute to a whole new level. Image credit Tomohiro Ohtake via Flickr


Baby animals, in particular mammals, rank high in the cuteness stakes. When twin baby pandas were born last year at the National Zoo in Washington D.C., 868,000 people watched panda cam over one weekend. There are more ‘cute baby animal’ websites than you could ever have time to look at and Buzzfeed even attempted a definitive ranking of the cutest baby animals. In case you’re wondering, baby otters beat puppies, kittens, and panda cubs to claim ultimate cuteness. Check out #CuteOff on Twitter if you want an overdose of cuteness.

Unsurprisingly, there’s money to be made out of cuteness: advertisements featuring cute children or animals abound. Cute soft toys are a massive industry and we can trace how these soft toys have become cuter over time. During the 20th century for example, the humble teddy bear changed from having a long snout to bearing a short snout and high forehead. Similarly, Mickey Mouse changed over a 50-year period – ending up with a larger relative head and far bigger eyes. These days, it’s hard to think of a Disney or Pixar character that doesn’t have enormous eyes. Whether on a mermaid, princess, fish, ant, monster, emotion, car or robot, the eyes are gigantic.

Whether you’re talking anime, manga or Pokémon, popular Japanese characters also tend to have exaggerated features, in particular, large eyes. Japan has taken the worship of cute to a whole new level. Ever since Hello Kitty said her first hello in 1974, Kawaii (translated these days simply as cute, loveable or adorable) has become a mainstay of Japanese popular culture. But what defines cute?

Baby face

It’s not just huge eyes that cute things share. There are a number of other features we associate with cute: a large head (Hello Kitty’s head accounts for half her body), a small ‘button’ nose, chubby cheeks and a prominent forehead. Research across cultures and races has shown this combination of characteristics is considered near universally adorable. Why have we evolved to respond so strongly to this set of facial features? Because these are the features of human babies.

Back in 1943, Konrad Lorenz dubbed this set of features the baby schema. Research in the 1970s showed we rate babies with the more pronounced of these features most attractive, that we like to look at cute babies, and babies make us smile. Lorenz argued that these physical features have come to signify vulnerability and prompt our parental instincts. Essentially, we are hardwired to want to nurture cute things. It makes sense: if we hadn’t evolved to be compelled to take care of our completely helpless newborn babies, humans probably wouldn’t have lasted long. Interestingly, although men and women are equally good at picking the age and facial expressions of babies, women are much better at rating different levels of cuteness.

And you don’t have to be a parent to feel this overwhelming desire to take care of a cute baby. Recent research recorded what was going on in the brains of women who had no children as they looked at photos of cute babies. The photos activated parts of the brain involved with our reward centres: we really are primed to respond to cute.

Care, concentration… and bubble wrap

Seeing something cute doesn’t just make us want to care for a baby. We know looking at cute things makes us feel more positive. I’m not kidding: research found that watching Internet cats makes you happier. And research has also shown that looking at cute images makes us pay more attention to detail, narrow our focus and behave more carefully. Yes, that’s right – checking out cute pictures on Instagram can improve your concentration and may even make you work more productively.

But contrary to what you might expect, cute things can also make us feel aggressive. Have you ever had the urge to pinch the chubby cheeks of a cute baby? Squeeze a kitten within an inch of its life? Given that cute things are often vulnerable, or fragile in some way, it seems odd they can lead us to say ‘you’re so cute I want to eat you up!’ Researchers suggest the aggression results from frustration: we can’t satisfy our intense desire to care for the cute thing in front of us which leads to an aggressive response.

And just in case you’re wondering, yes, scientists have carried out the ultimate experiment. Looking at adorably cute pictures makes us pop more bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap.

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  1. Excellent, now I have the secret cartoon formula for success – big eyes, small nose, large forehead… must admit, not a big fan of the small nose idea; they are less expressive

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