A Brief Exploration of the Cute

In 2016, I wrote about what makes things “creepy” in another brief exploration post, which you can find here. This time around, I’d like to take a look at what makes things “cute.”

Interestingly, but unsurprisingly, our notion of cuteness stems from evolutionary biology. In 1949, Nobel laureates Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen described the “Kindchenschema (infant schema) where infant facial features serve as ‘innate releasing mechanisms’ for instinctual caregiving behaviours.” The specific factors that humans find cute or endearing are round eyes, chubby cheeks, high eyebrows, a small chin, and a high head-to-body-size ratio.

Of course, cuteness sits on a spectrum; the cuter the baby is, the more activation can be found in a pleasure center of the brain called the “nucleus accumbens.” But there are some cute stimuli, that create responses far beyond what infants can produce in our brains. These are called supernormal stimuli, and were originally discovered when Niko Tinbergen determined that geese preferred to roll volleyballs towards their nests over real goose eggs. He hypothesized that volleyballs are supernormal stimuli because their big, round, white shape is more egg-like than real goose eggs.

For a pop culture example, Pikachu’s baby-like features (big head and fat body) exceed those of real infants, making the character a supernormal stimulus: unbearably adorable, but without the high maintenance of a real baby. Refined sugar, which obviously never appears in nature, produces a similar effect in the brain region around the nucleus accumbens.

Intriguingly, we often find toddlers more cute than infants, even though they’re more capable. In a 1997 paper, the anthropologist Barry Bogin hypothesized that children’s physical growth may intentionally lengthen the duration of their cuteness. The brain reaches reaches adult size when the body is only 40 percent complete, when “dental maturation is only 58 percent complete” and when “reproductive maturation is only 10 percent complete.” This allows children to maintain a superficially infantile appearance (big head, small body), spurring nurturing and care-giving responses in older humans.

Perhaps toddlers are supernormal stimuli compared to infants, subverting the normal attentional pathways of the human mind. While they don’t need as much physical care as infants, they definitely require intellectual and mental care as much of children’s brain development occurs from birth to age 3. If toddlers are more receptive to learning than humans of any other age, it makes sense to me that cuteness is our evolved mechanism for providing that time and mental effort to them.

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