In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week we’re going to look at the psychology of cuteness.
Whether your preference is human babies or babies of the animal variety, they’re cute. Even if the associated adults are rather unattractive, the babies just tug at the heartstrings. And there’s probably a good reason behind it.
The baby schema
In 1971, zoologist Konrad Lorenz first proposed that babies are cute for an evolutionary reason. They need parental care, and being cute might make them more likely to get it. “Baby schema” features include large eyes, a large head, a large, bulging forehead, small nose and mouth, and chubby cheeks. Add in a plump body shape, kissable skin, and a little eau de bébé smell, and you’ve got a magical package.
This paper by Glocker and colleagues includes photos that show how the baby schema features can be digitally manipulated to produce images of higher and lower cuteness. Small changes in those key features can make a big difference. This may have implications for parents of infants with conditions like cleft lip/palate. The cuteness response is unconscious, and that cleft lip/palate affects key features within that baby schema.
Cuteness in baby animals seems to work the same way as it does in humans. Social psychologist Daniel Kruger studied human reactions to baby animals, and found the photos that people rated as being cute were of species in which the young needed parental care. Two different reptile images were used, only one of which was a species in which the young required parental care. There was a very clear ugly/cute contrast between the two.
The impact of cute
Cute babies don’t just have an impact on their parents; their cuteness can motivate caretaking behaviours in adults, even if it’s not their child. In an evolutionary sense, this makes sense, as there would have been times when other adults would have had to step in to play a caretaking role.
Cuteness grabs our attention, and brings baby to front of mind. That happens whether it’s a human baby, animal baby, or even an inanimate object like a doll. The orbitofrontal cortex area of the brain starts to do a happy dance; this begins about 140 milliseconds after we see baby.
When babies are so cute you just want to shmoooosh them to pieces, there’s a name for that: “cute aggression.” This happens more with animals than human babies, and involves activation of the brain’s pleasure pathways.
Women tend to be more sensitive to differences in cuteness, and premenopausal women are more sensitive than postmenopausal. It even makes a difference if women are on contraceptives that raise their hormone levels.
The problem with being less cute?
In a 1984 study by McCabe, 3-6 year-old children with more adult-like facial proportions were more likely to have experienced physical abuse than children with more childlike proportions. The researcher suggested that parents may have had unrealistic expectations of children whose features suggested they were older than their actual age and less dependent and in need of care.
I’m a total sucker for cuteness. I don’t particularly like kids, but my brain still does the baby cuteness dance. And baby animals make the world go ’round.
Do you tend to react strongly to cuteness?
- Discover Magazine: Which Baby Animals Look Cute? It May Be No Accident
- McCabe, V. (1984). Abstract perceptual information for age level: A risk factor for maltreatment? Child Development, 55(1) 267-276.
- Smithsonian Magazine: Why We Want to Squeeze Cute, Little Things
- University of Oxford: How cute things hijack our brains and drive behaviour
- Wikipedia: Cuteness
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.