By Iulia Kis
Even though the English language (and many others) lack a word for the feeling associated with interacting with cute things, there is certainly a specific emotion characteristic to it. This has yet to be pinpointed and thoroughly described, but, ever since ethologist Lorenz Konrad first described what he called the ‘Kindchenschema’ in 1943, more and more research has been done on this topic.
The definition of cute, albeit subjective and culture specific, usually consists of a list of traits characteristic to infant faces. These elicit “cuteness perception” responses, identified as a warm feeling, feeling moved or touched. The neural pathways underlying these responses are still not completely understood. However, in recent years, as society has been flooded with cute videos and pictures on all social media platforms and the rising popularity of kawaii, more research has been allocated to this perception.
The ground-breaking work of Lorenz looked at the elements that make something cute: a wide face and eyes, a small forehead, nose and mouth (Glocker et al., 2009). While this may be a well-known fact, there is still much left to say about why people react to cuteness as they do. Some might smile, squeal and wish to protect the cute stimuli, while others might cry or even feel to urge to harm it.
The first piece of neuroscientific evidence in support of Lorenz’ Kindchenschema was a study that showed pictures of unfamiliar infants and adults to participants and looked at the changes taking place in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), which is linked to reward processing (Kringelbach et al., 2008). This was achieved using an MEG scanner, which revealed an intense and rapid OFC response when viewing infant, but not adult faces. In a different study (Glocker et al., 2009), the cute appearance of babies was manipulated using a computer to enhance or reduce their Kindchenschema-like features. The participants responded to the upregulated Kindchenschema pictures with an activation in the accumbens nucleus, which is related to reward and appetite regulation, pointing towards care-giving tendencies.
Cute stimuli activate the innate releasing-mechanism in people, which describes how a cute object activates the parental instinct (Lorenz, 1971). These also induce a plethora of other responses correlated with caregiving, like physical carefulness, analysed in an online study (Sherman et al., 2012). The participants were shown cute or less cute pictures before they were asked to trace a line with their mouse that was supposed to follow an already drawn, intricate pattern. It was shown that those who were shown cute pictures for the longest time achieved the most precise results. This response may be explained by the fact that people perceive cute objects as helpless and in need, so it is only natural that they would wish to protect it.
That is definitely advantageous from an evolutionary point of view, just like the fact that cute objects are better able to catch people’s eye compared to less cute ones. This has been demonstrated using the same method as Glocker et. al (2009), but the investigation focused on the time allocated to look at cute versus less cute pictures, by both children and adults (Borgi et al., 2014). This study was the first to analyse how early in development humans show a preference for the Kindchenschema, as kids as young as 3 years old spent significantly more time looking at cute pictures than their counterparts.
On the other hand, a common response to cute stimuli is something along the lines of “It is so cute I could eat it!”. This has been coined cute aggression, and can be explained by the fact that the exposure to cute stimuli creates an overwhelming positive feeling, which the body tries to balance by eliciting an opposite emotion, such as aggression (Stavropoulos and Alba, 2018). Three components were analysed to quantify this dimorphous expression of positive and negative emotions. N200 is a negative component of event-related potentials (ERP), which appears in strong positive emotional responses to a stimulus. RewP and SNP are 2 other ERP components that were analysed, as they are present in response to reward. The levels of these ERP components were correlated with the participants’ self-reported level of aggression and EEG recording, which showed that the people that expressed more of the studied ERPs when showed cute pictures also reported more aggression.
The effects of perceiving cute things can even go as far as to modulate people’s diet choices. An empirical study showed a negative correlation between assesse cuteness of an animal and the participants’ willingness to eat the animal’s meat. (Zickfeld, Kunst and Hohle, 2018) While this does not demonstrate a causal relationship between the two variables, it still shows the extent to which cuteness perception can affect human behaviour.
Cuteness perception seems to even affect how adults perceive each other, as adults with infantile traits are seen as non-intimidating, more careful and friendly (Livingston and Pearce, 2009), with repercussion in the workplace. That is because infantile-faced persons are also unconsciously considered less smart and more helpless, which makes them targets to unconscious bias or discrimination in job positions that require responsibility.
To conclude, there is no denying that cute things are able to modulate human behaviour to a large extent and a good understanding of the mechanisms underlying this process could provide invaluable insight of caregiving, especially for infants, and how humans perceive each other.
Glocker, M. L. et al. (2009) ‘Baby schema in infant faces induces cuteness perception and motivation for caretaking in adults’, Ethology, 115(3), pp. 257–263. doi: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.2008.01603.x.
Kringelbach, M. L. et al. (2008) ‘A Specific and Rapid Neural Signature for Parental Instinct’, PLoS ONE. Edited by T. Fitch, 3(2), p. e1664. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001664.
Lorenz, K. (1971) ‘Studies in animal and human behavior’. (Vol. II). London, England: Methuen
Sherman, G. D. et al. (2012) ‘Individual Differences in the Physical Embodiment of Care: Prosocially Oriented Women Respond to Cuteness by Becoming More Physically Careful Sexual Morality View project’. doi: 10.1037/a0029259.
Borgi, M. et al. (2014) ‘Baby schema in human and animal faces induces cuteness perception and gaze allocation in children.’, Frontiers in psychology, 5(MAY), p. 411. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00411.
Stavropoulos, K. K. M. and Alba, L. A. (2018) ‘“It’s so cute I could crush it!”: Understanding neural mechanisms of cute aggression’, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00300.
Zickfeld, J. H., Kunst, J. R. and Hohle, S. M. (2018) ‘Too sweet to eat: Exploring the effects of cuteness on meat consumption’, Appetite, 120, pp. 181–195. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2017.08.038.Livingston, R. W. and Pearce, N. A. (2009) ‘The teddy-bear effect: Does having a baby face benefit black chief executive officers?: Research article’, Psychological Science, 20(10), pp. 1229–1236. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02431.x.