What Is... Psychology Series

What Is… the Psychology of Cuteness

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.

Cute animals

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?

Sources

Psychology resources: What is... Insights into Psychology series and Psychological Tests collection

The What Is… Insights Into Psychology series directory contains all of the terms that have been covered in the series thus far.

You can also find a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests here.

28 thoughts on “What Is… the Psychology of Cuteness”

  1. Yeah! Gotta love me some of those baby pheromones!! Ohh, the sweet smell of a fresh baby! Love it!

    I know this’ll sound wrong somehow, but I’ve seen some ugly babies, and I was sort of turned off by them. Misshapen heads, ugly expressions, too much drool, that sort of thing.

    You lose the experience of those baby pheromones when you’re looking at a picture instead of in person, and then it’s like, the Olsen twins from Full House weren’t nearly as cute onscreen as I bet they were in person with those pheromones.

    Li’l Sweetmeats is a year old now, and I still haven’t met her. I think it’s for the best. This way I can’t fall in love with her and CARE once my sister becomes abusive when Li’l Sweets is older.

    Mr. Kitty was so cute when I got him! He weighed one pound!! Ohh, what a sweetheart he was, and a total gentleman.

  2. I’m not exactly sure I like the word ‘cute’ applied to humans but I’m ok with it for animals…I think with baby animals it’s their softness – hence the popularity of what are now called ‘plushies’ (we just called them stuffed animals). Human babies aren’t so soft but yes to the big eyes – big eyes will get me every time…But babies aren’t my thing – they are kind of boring – feed one end, keep the other end dry – I like kids when they are a bit more autonomous and have some personality – Good thing I never had kids, eh? LOL

    1. Same here! Seeing my baby niece for an hour is good, but then I’m done! And I agree, softness i key. I hadn’t heard of plushies, so I guess I’m stuck a few decades in the past. 😉

  3. I’m weird…I don’t find babies cute, but baby animals I’ll die for lol. That is unfortunate that kids that look less cute are more likely to be abused. I wish we weren’t such a visual creature.

  4. I never knew there was a name for that: “cute aggression.” I think I’ve felt that a few times, and thought it was odd. I wonder though if these principles of cuteness apply to things other than babies — that is, to anything that registers as “cute” — even inanimate objects, or older people. I’m just wondering, because it doesn’t seem covered in the post.

    1. Inanimate objects with baby schema features can trigger the cuteness response. I didn’t come across anything that made reference to older people. I’m not sure if facial features start to converge back to baby schema with aging, or perhaps it’s more a cultural issue of infantilizing the elderly.

  5. Yes, we react to cuteness. When we get ornery and low on compassion toward self or children, we imagine them as itty bitty Littles (or look at photos) and that softens us up a little.

    We saw baby Grizzly Bears and they looked like little anteaters!! Some Pygmy species are perennially cute even as they age (pygmy nuthatch).

  6. Yes, I was aware of the speculation surrounding the evolution of cuteness. Correct or not, I really could not say. I don’t know about you, but I do find reductionism so very depressing!

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  8. Interesting! This is something totally new for me. Wow!

    I have the baby cuteness dance all the time towards babies, animals and sometimes even cute adults. Haha…

    However, I always try my best to show care towards all as how I always tried my best to help my students who approached me with their problems when I was a university lecturer.

    I have been trying to persuade myself to focus on one more thing. The cute, silly, innocent, vulnerable, attention-seeking side of a human soul that needs care. Haha…

  9. I have to say my brain definitely does a massive cuteness dance. I’m ashamed to admit it but when I worked in a school and then a nursery there were kids that I did find cuter and wanted to work with more often because of that ‘Baby Schema’ set up.

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