The science of cuteness

When first analyzing Marovich’s article, I found her introduction to the idea of “cuteness” to be interesting, but oddly vague. But there was one aspect of it that stuck out rather clearly: the beckoning cat, and its “magical” properties to draw people in and create good fortune. But what was this magic? How do I find its origin? To help in my comprehension of the topic, I began by doing a Google image search of just the word “cute” to see if I could find any patterns. Lo-and-behold, there was in fact a pattern, things that I have observed my entire life, yet never managed to connect the dots to: puppies at play, kittens in tea cups, babies looking perfectly innocent with wide eyed stares, but it obviously has to go deeper than that; There’s got to be more to this that I’m missing.

Because I found Marovich’s article to be rather surface level, I instead chose to take a look into her sources, which revealed a great deal of factual information that explains our powerful relationships with all things categorized as “cute”. Hiroshi Nittono’s article “The Power of Kawaii” summed up the phenomenon as so: “Cute objects are assumed to be characterized by baby schema. This is a set of features that are commonly seen in young animals: a large head relative to the body size, a high and protruding forehead, large eyes, and so forth.” He goes on to indicate that this baby schema creates a stimulus, which triggers many of our brain’s receptors, particularly those associated with attentiveness, motivation and care giving. The high level of rewarding stimuli we receive just from the observation of these objects is a compelling explanation of our “obsession” with them.

To drive this point home further,  Cara Santa Maria of the Huffington post breaks down the origins of this “power”. Evolutionary developments, pertaining to both human beings and other living creatures, are arguably the sole reason why “cute” properties are so valued our minds. As stated previously, we find certain animals (particularly young ones) to be cute because their physical characteristics stimulate our brains in the same way that human babies do. But why do we find these particular features so attractive? One likely answer may be that over time, a mutation in the genes of mothers predisposed them to be more protective and nurturing of the offspring that possessed what we now refer to as “cute” features. As a result, these children (who also were likely to possess the same genetic bias themselves) were much more likely to survive and reproduce, which over millions of years, slowly adapted our inherent reaction towards animals and objects with the same aesthetics. For example, a young, docile appearance can explain why we bred and domesticated certain types of animals, as opposed to others. Additionally, these patterns explain why we describe these qualities magnetic and “magical”. In all actuality, the talismanic properties of the beckoning cat are merely a façade: they lure us in because we are genetically predisposed to see them as such, and the “good fortune” they bring stems from the fact that their appearance naturally causes us to feel more motivated and rewarded.

So we have an understanding of the science of cuteness, but this still leaves the question of why exactly do humans often treat these living, breathing creatures with the same level of possession and personal association that they would any other object? To find the answer, I returned to Belk’s essay “Possessions & the extended self”. Perhaps, most obviously, there is the notion that we see these creatures as objects because a person may see himself or herself as the amalgamation of everything they have or possess. Spouses, Children, Slaves are all examples of ways in which man has found a sense of possession towards those in his own species, so it seems only natural that similar attitudes be held over other living creatures. This becomes more elaborate as Belk suggests that we see our pets at extensions of ourselves, both in terms of personality and viewing treatment of a pet as a reflection of the opinion of the self. As the creation of “cute” objects became more and more apparent, it would seem only natural that they would be crafted to allow us to input ourselves into them as well. This can explain why some of the most famous faces in popular culture (Hello Kitty,  Pikachu, Snoopy, etc.) are all examples of characters in that possess cute qualities, but yet are seemingly voiceless. This internal vacancy allows us to project ourselves into the character, adding in yet another layer to the complex science of cuteness.


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4 thoughts on “The science of cuteness”

  1. I found Marovich’s article quite vague and surface level too, as she does not analyze the concept of cuteness in detail, and she neglects the relationship between cuteness and human desire. Instead, she limits to reporting the story of the beckoning cat and Hello Kitty, suggesting the similarities and differences existing between them. Although the story of the beckoning cat is very fascinating, and I did not know most of the details she offers in her article, after finishing the reading, I was still wondering why humans are so attracted to cute things and why they are so repelled by unsettling things. She touches this topic, but refuses to fully investigate. I like the fact that you use scientific theories based on the way human brain works and on the evolution of the species to explain the connection that Marovich fails to examine in her article. Considering the fact that I am no scientist, and I have no familiarity with scientific treatises in general, I cannot judge the validity of Dr. Hiroshi Nittono’s theories. However, I can say that the line of reasoning that you present seems quite valid to me, especially the connection you investigate between animals and babies, which I underlined in commenting the post of one of our classmates. Dr. Nittono’s statements also explain the magnetic and magical qualities of animals and objects. Finally, it was pretty clever of you to make a connection between these magnetic and magical qualities with the extended-self described in Belk’s article. I think you are right: children and slaves, for example, are perfect to illustrate the idea that, as we see them as an extension of ourselves, in the same way we see objects as an extension of our persona. In other words, the cognitive process that we apply to categories of human beings can also be applied to inanimate things.

  2. The science of cuteness, very strategic title. Cute things , has always grabbed my attention. From my personal observance of people, what I notice is that people tend to treat and approach cute things more gracefully. However, in your post you quoted a very interesting statement from Marovich “The high level of rewarding stimuli we receive just from the observation of these objects is a compelling explanation of our “obsession” with them’. This totally explains the connection. Thus, I’m not sure how much of it I buy into. If this was completely true, What’s the explanation for people that just don’t like kids or even dogs? However, I find most Human having a great connection/attachment to cute things. Great presentation for topic on cute things.

  3. Great response. I agreed with your opinion that Marovich’s article was “rather surface leveled:” not dense at all. Hence I appreciated the fact you evaluated her sources to get a better understanding of her arguments and disposition. One point I found particularly interesting is the “cute phenomena” As clearly laid out in Hiroshi Nittono’s article “The Power of Kawaii” “the baby schema creates a stimulus, which triggers many of our brain’s receptors, particularly those associated with attentiveness, motivation and care giving.” And in Cara Santa Maria’s article she states this “cute” phenomena is a result of evolution ; “a mutation in the genes of mothers predisposed them to be more protective and nurturing of the offspring that possessed what we now refer to as “cute” features”

    The theory of evolution and the key to surviving is adapting and changing to one’s environment. Obviously this cute phenomena is simply a form of evolution as the “cuter” babies and animals are deemed a high chance of survival in the animal kingdom. Yet my only concern is that yes this theory seems logical and concrete when applied to humans, but does this transfer over to the rest of the animal kingdom? We humans, though on top of the food chain, are only a small percentage of the animal kingdom. Obviously the cute phenomena is tangible and real as we experience first hand everyday in our society. Yet animals, the creatures who function off instinct alone, do not respect our ‘Cute’ phenomena. Despite how cute an offspring doe might be , human interaction with that baby deer will prevent the mother from neglecting their offspring forever. The does’ ‘cuteness’ does not convince the mother otherwise to care for her offspring, because of her natural instincts. When a new lion male takes over a pride, it kills all the offspring cubs to prevent any future competition. It appears our ‘cute phenomena’ affects only us self-aware creatures of the animal kingdom.

    Again great blog post I thought it was just interesting to consider how this cute phenomena truly exists within our animal kingdom.

  4. Like Valentina and yourself, I also found Marovich’s article to be interesting, but quite vague. Instead of explaining the reason for why humans are so attracted to cuteness, she focuses more on the comparisons between animals and objects. You, on the other hand, have done a great job in explaining the attraction more in depth using the scientific theories on how the brain works, and the mutation in the genes. It was very interesting and informative. I learned a few things.

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