[This article explores the reason why we find things cute, and how cuteness is an important evolutionary tool that helps perpetuate the human species. It also talks about the phenomenon of “cute aggression” and the implications of being “uncute”, so to speak.]
Gurgling babies, bunny shaped erasers, and baby pandas have one thing in common-- they’re all so darn cute! Labelling something as cute is a very instinctive human response; we hardly ever stop to think why we said “awwwwww!” After all, we’re rarely in a position where we have to defend our opinion on something’s cuteness as there exists a somewhat universal consensus on what qualifies as cute.
The first person to formally identify the constituents of cuteness was an Austrian scientist and zoologist named Konrad Lorenz. In the 1940s, he coined the term “kinderschema” which describes a set of physical traits that evoke a strong positive emotional response. These traits include a large head, large eyes, chubby cheeks, small nose, small mouth and chin, short thick extremities/limbs, and a rotund body. When put together, these features amount to what humans perceive as cute. If we superimpose these features on inanimate objects and animals, we immediately perceive them as cute as well.
What is it about these specific characteristics that invoke the perception of cuteness? These features unlock innate instincts to nurture and love in humans because they are based on the physical attributes of human babies. In other words, we feel a certain degree of warmth and protectiveness towards our babies. When other objects/animals resemble human babies by sharing the same physical features, we feel the same warmth and protectiveness towards them. Hence, our understanding of cuteness is based on the way human offspring look. If babies had rectangular eyes and green cheeks, that’s what we would find cute!
Much like humans, most mammals are born small, helpless, and in dire need of extensive care and protection before they become self-dependent. Their caregivers need to feel a sense of protectiveness and nurturance towards them, since the survival of the babies is dependent on the care provided to them. The more altricial (helpless, underdeveloped) a species, the cuter their babies are. Cuteness and altriciality of a species are directly proportional to each other, because especially helpless younglings need to be cute to give people an incentive to take care of them and enable their survival. Cuteness is an adaptive trait; it is an evolutionarily designed tactic to ensure that babies that need extra care look extra cute, thus incentivising their caregivers’ to want to stay by their side.
The feeling of cuteness sometimes invokes a strange reaction. You must have heard somebody squeal in glee when they see a really cute puppy. The squeal is understandable, until it escales into a sigh and a confession to want to squeeze or pull the little dog because of how cute he is. Why do we have an urge to be aggressive towards something cute? After all, we don’t want to hurt them at all, quite the contrary in fact. There are two explanations for this phenomenon called “cute aggression”. The first is that cuteness can generate an overwhelmingly positive reward response to the point where it feels unbearable. To balance out this emotion, anger and hostility get thrown in the mix to bring us back to a neutral or mild feeling. The second reason is a frustrated desire for caregiving. In most cases, as much as we want to cuddle and hold a cute baby we see on the street, we can’t do it, because we don’t have the jurisdiction to impose ourselves like that on a stranger’s child. Thus, the inability to act on these feelings of cuteness invokes aggression, resulting in “cute aggression”.
Cuteness is a fairly benign affair. We find things cute, we want to play with them, take care of them, and this contributes to the perpetuation of our species. However, there is a dark underbelly to this phenomenon. If you see a child whose features don’t conform to kinderschema, you are unlikely to find them cute, and in turn, less likely to want to take care of them. As much as cuteness propels our desire to nurture, the lack of cuteness inhibits this same desire. What might this mean for babies born with physical deformities? Could child abandonment and abuse also be related to the cuteness of a child? The implications are sobering.
While cuteness can be a savior, it can also be a curse. The next time you find something cute, observe it carefully. Which childlike features make it appear cute? How would you treat this object if it were not cute?
Author: Stuti Bagri For Limelighting Life Collective
Clark, J., & Bryant, C. (Hosts). (2021, January 14th). The Science of Cute
[Audio podcast episode]. In Stuff you should know. Retrieved from https://podcasts.apple.com/in/podcast/stuff-you-should-know/id278981407?i=1000505287629