Why “cute” matters

By Irene Park

Life can be exciting sometimes, but it can also just be downright stressful. The dinner event that took me two weeks to plan is attended by only a quarter of the people on the guest list, my to-do list never gets shorter, my car suffers yet another bump in the parking lot, and so on.   

There are many ways that I deal with stress—such as exercising, listening to music, and hanging out with friends. But I have one secret way to de-stress that I usually don’t talk about at work: watching videos or looking at pictures of cute animals, like this one or this one, that melt my heart and force me to let out a huge “awwwww.”

Seeing cute things activates the nucleus accumbens, a part of the brain’s reward system that motivates us in anticipation of a reward. This is thought to be the signal that makes us feel rewarded for caring attitudes toward cute babies and animals.

Although many of us react similarly to the same videos and pictures of cute animals, there isn’t a universal definition of “cuteness.” Many of us find puppies cuter than bugs. But for others, the opposite might be true because some bugs are indeed very cute!

Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian ethologist (a scientist who studies animal behavior) who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 1973, was the first one to characterize the traits people tend to find cute. In 1943 Lorenz proposed that “Kindchenschema”, defined as a set of infantile physical features, is perceived as cute. These infantile features include big eyes, short limbs, and a plump body, some of which are present in the corgi dog and the owl featured in the YouTube videos above. In fact, human babies share many “cute” physical characteristics, like large eyes and round faces, with other baby animals.

Irene-cute-fig.1
Which of the two is cuter? “High” represents a higher degree of baby-like, cute features and “Low” represents a lower degree of those features. Image source

Lorenz posited that cute features trigger a caring response from mothers and other caregivers, regardless of kinship. Evolutionarily speaking, this sort of response might give cuter, more infantile animals an edge in their fitness—the more care an infant gets from a mother or caregiver, the better the chances of its survival and reproduction.  

Consistent with Lorenz’s hypothesis, a study from 1995 concluded that mothers are more attentive, affectionate, and playful toward babies with more infantile features.

Similarly, teachers tend to pay more attention to the more attractive students and believe they are better students. This favoritism can lead to better scholastic performance in those students. Grade point average, college graduation rate, and attractiveness in high school students are correlated—meaning that more attractive students tend to do better in school.

Children also pay attention to cute features. A study shows that three- to six-year-old children pay more attention to cuter images. Perhaps this helps to explain the evolution of teddy bears and Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Since their debut in 1903, teddy bears have changed to have shorter snouts and larger foreheads. Similarly, Mickey Mouse underwent some changes from his initial design in 1928 to have “cuter” features, like a relatively large head and short extremities.

teddy bear compare
Pictures of teddy bears from 1903 (L) and the 2000’s (R), showing the evolution of their features. Image sources: Left and Right.

But why do we have our responses toward cute features? Penn State University emeritus associate professor Jeffrey Kurland believes that this may be because cute features represent good genes, similar to how sexually attractive adults might be reproductively healthier. So our neurological system and behavior have evolved to appreciate and reinforce cute features because they represent good health, and thus a better probability of surviving and reproducing.

Our responses to cute features might not only be good for de-stressing and detecting good genes, but beneficial in other ways too. In another study, people who looked at cute animals focused better and were more careful with their tasks than participants who did not. The researchers proposed that the increased focus helps improve the caregiving of cuter infants. For the non-caregivers, cute animals could improve focus and productivity at work.

Maybe all of my time spent watching cute animal videos at work wasn’t a waste after all!

About the author

ireneSo Hae (Irene) Park is a fourth-year Human Genetics PhD student at the University of Michigan Medical School and a MiSciWriters Senior Editor. Before attending UMich, she received her BA in Biological Sciences and Philosophy at Cornell University. Now under the joint supervision of Drs. Thomas Wilson and Thomas Glover, Irene is investigating what causes genome instability—an accumulation of mutations in the cells—and how it can be avoided. Genome instability is commonly seen in many human diseases, like cancer. When she is not working during the wee hours in her laboratory or writing about the latest cool topics in science and medicine in The Michigan Daily or HIPPO Reads, Irene likes to watch movies, watch The Food Network, collect anything cute, learn how to make different types of coffee drinks, listen to music, travel, and read. Follow her on Twitter (@S_Park89).

Read all posts by Irene here.

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