There are very few things in life that everyone can agree on. We may not be able to come to a consensus about national politics or whether the customer is always right, but show people a picture of a giggling infant or a tiny kitten and they’ll surely melt into an “Awwww!” Even the toughest among us are powerless against the charms of snuggling puppies.
Humans love things that are cute, whether it’s babies, puppies, or pandas. We have whole Web sites devoted to cute kids, cute animals doing cute things, and other various forms of cute-i-tude. We demand that our movie stars and our cultural icons be cute, too. Our appreciation for cuteness transcends sex and nationality—even truck drivers in Japan dangle Hello Kitty charms from their rearview mirrors. What is it that causes humans to squeal with delight at the sight of something cute and what constitutes cuteness in the first place?
The Creation of Cute
Cuteness is closely associated with infancy, since evolution designs babies for maximum adorableness. They are small, with big forward-facing eyes, chubby cheeks, and tiny button noses. Their heads are big in comparison to the rest of their body and they’re round and plump overall. When we see these indicators, we react by offering care and protection. Since human babies are basically helpless for years after birth, they’d better elicit some emotion from adults—their survival depends on it. Cuteness is a signal of helplessness and the telltale features are designed to deflect aggression and trigger emotional bonding. Cuteness is so powerful that studies indicate that seeing something cute stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain that are activated by sex, food, or psychoactive drugs. If you’ve ever seen a group of people cooing at a puppy, you know that basking in cuteness is almost like getting high.
The features of cuteness aren’t limited to human babies. Many mammal infants have their own version of cuteness besides oversized heads and eyes. Baby deer have white spots, baby lions have tail rings, and baby chimpanzees have white tufts of fur on their tails. These physical features signal to adults of their species that they are young, helpless, and in need of protection. Chimp researcher Jane Goodall found that baby chimps that retained their white tail tufts were less likely to be attacked by adults than juveniles who didn’t have tufts. The signals of infancy and helplessness inspire tenderness in adults, whether they’re tail tufts on apes or the ungainly toddle of human babies.
Cute or Consequences
Some may think that there’s no such thing as an ugly baby, but cuteness has an important purpose in evolution. In times of famine or hardship, the cutest infants attract the most support and protection from adults, and therefore are the most likely to survive. Cute, symmetrical features can also indicate that an infant is robust and healthy and therefore worth investing resources in. All babies are cute in their parents’ eyes, but studies have shown that new mothers spend more time cooing and gazing at attractive newborns and mothers of unattractive children spend more time simply tending to their babies’ needs. Even though they’re being well cared for, the less attractive babies don’t elicit the same overflowing adoration from their mothers.
In her book Survival of the Prettiest, Susan Etcoff writes “Beautiful babies are typical babies whose features mildly exaggerate the typical baby geometry: they just push all the triggers. Babies considered ugly do not have all the triggers, and makes them look older, as if some version of their future face had been placed on their newborn body.” Babies with mature features are perceived as fussy and difficult, and get less sympathy and protection from adults. In situations where resources are scarce, parents devote more energy and resources to attractive children. Etcoff writes that some studies even suggest that abused children living in state custody were disproportionately unattractive, with adult-looking features that did not resonate as cute or elicit adult sympathy.
Cuteness in Culture
Cuteness is a trigger designed to appeal to all adults, but women are especially susceptible. Researchers at St. Andrews University in Scotland say that female reproductive hormones determine “cuteness sensitivity.” In tests of men and women, they found that the people most attuned to and affected by cuteness were women between the ages of nineteen and twenty-six. Women’s appreciation of cuteness remains high until about menopause, at which time it drops to the men’s level, suggesting that female brains are hard-wired to be attracted to cuteness, especially during childbearing years. Men’s reaction to cuteness was less profound and some of the test subjects even had trouble differentiating cute babies from less cute ones. Women, on the other hand, were extremely sensitive to tiny variations between the infants, easily marking them as cute or not. Women may be more susceptible to cuteness because of their role as caretakers and childbearers.
Our preference for cuteness affects many aspects of our culture. We’re attracted to just about anything small and baby-like and companies know it. The cartoon industry creates characters with infantile facial features. Disney’s Bambi, Dumbo, and Mickey Mouse all have the same facial proportions as human babies, with large eyes and high foreheads. Even human cartoon characters have facial proportions that mimic babies. Using adorable animals can make advertisements more effective, and even cars have gotten smaller, rounder, and shinier. Movies about adorable penguins, lovesick robots, and kung-fu pandas also try to capitalize on our love of all things cute. Hello Kitty herself is an amalgam of infantile features, with big eyes and a big head. The fact that she’s a kitten is just icing on the cute cake.
Our predilection for the precious is deeply ingrained in our DNA and it’s part of what keeps us propagating as a species. As anyone who’s ever had a baby can tell you, if you have to get up at 3 a.m. to feed something, it helps if that something’s adorable.