October 20

Cuteness, or How I Scammed My Way to Adulthood

I have a confession to make:

I am a scammer.

When I was born, I was completely unsuited to survive on my own.  Considering all of my accomplishments today, it’s hard to believe that when I got started, I was unable to walk, talk, or eat an entire bag of popcorn in one sitting.

In order to survive, I had to utilize my only redeeming quality to con my parents and other adults into taking care of me: I was cute.  So, I used the powers of my big forehead, chubby cheeks, small chin, soft skin, and irresistible baby smell to trick everyone into thinking that I was worth saving.


The nasty author and her messy brother who lives for drama.

To be honest, I never felt bad about my scam.  It just came so naturally to me.  But over the years, as my face has thinned (and I have matured in other ways), I, too, have fallen victim to the cuteness of others.  Many children, animals, and even inanimate objects have fooled me into wanting to nurture them.  And every time, I feel a twinge of guilt that I was once the kind of monster who inflicted parental urges on others.  In a desperate act of redemption, with the help of a recent review by Morten L. Kringelbach and colleagues [1], I’ve decided to tell the world how I did it.

Simply Irresistible

We all know cuteness when we see it.  Kringelbach et al. describe cuteness as “one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behavior.”  So how does it work?

The concept of cuteness was first considered by one of the founding fathers of ethology (the study of animal behavior), Konrad Lorenz.  Lorenz proposed that Kindchenschema (infantile features) form an “innate releasing mechanism” that trigger instinctual nurturing behaviors in adults.  In other words, seeing something cute activates an innate, stereotyped sequence of behaviors associated with caring for said cute thing.  While the general model (see baby ⇒ care for baby) still holds, some revisions have been made, probably based on the observation that parenting definitely does not come naturally to everybody.


Unfortunately, parenting does not come naturally to everyone. From Jake Likes Onions.

Even if adults aren’t pre-programmed with the ability to care for a baby, there is something about cute sights, sounds, and smells that catches our attention in a unique way.  Brain imaging studies and lots of anecdotal evidence have found that adults, both parents and non-parents, respond to cute infant faces more quickly and distinctly than they do to the faces of other adults [2–4].  Using  magnetoencephalography, Kringelbach et al. measured the brain activity of adults shown the faces of unfamiliar infants and adults [3].  They found that within 140 ms of seeing a baby (aka in the  blink of an eye!), the medial orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is activated.  Importantly, this activation didn’t occur when the same adults were shown pictures of other adults (who were, according to an exclusive panel of participant judges, equally as attractive and emotionally arousing as the babies).

The OFC (which has been featured in previous NeuWriteSD posts relating to  political decision-making food cravings skin orgasms, and  sex) is important for figuring out which environmental stimuli are important and what we should do about them.  People and animals with damaged OFCs can lose the ability to make appropriate decisions and exhibit a lack of self-control [5,6].  Kringelbach et al. suggest that the activation of the OFC in response to cute baby faces acts as an attentional and emotional tag that tells the brain that the face is important.  Therefore, consistent with Lorenz’s baby trigger theory, our unique response to babies is unconscious.  We don’t have to consciously acknowledge that we are seeing a baby and then decide to care about it.  Instead, via rapid activation of the OFC, babies essentially hijack an important control center in the brain before we even realize that we’ve been duped.



As evidenced by the two hours I just lost to Babies of Instagram, once babies have caught our attention, it is difficult to stop staring at them.  All healthy humans, including parents, non-parents, and other babies, will spend more time looking at cute babies than less cute babies (see below for images of more and less cute people and pets) [7–9].  In fact, adults will exert more effort (which, experimentally, translates to repeatedly pushing a button or lever to indicate “I want more!”) to look at cuter babies [10].  (Side lol: heterosexual women prefer to look at cute babies and hot guys about the same amount, whereas heterosexual men will forego the babies to see more hot ladies [11].)


Images of scientifically cute things from Kringelbach et al. [1] and Borgi et al. [7]. The arrows in figure (A) indicate the measurements commonly used to objectively quantify cuteness. The pairs in (C) have been altered to look more (left) or less (right) cute. This type of photographic manipulation, and not the recruitment of more and less cute babies, is typically how many cute- and attractiveness studies are done. Parts (B) and (D) of this figure were graphs and objectively not cute enough to include in this post.

The pleasure we experience while looking at cute babies is essentially the same, biologically speaking, as the pleasure we experience due to sexdrugsmusic, and ASMR [6].  After activation of the OFC, activation of the brain regions associated with reward processing, notably the  nucleus accumbens, follows suit [12].  But simply capturing the attention of an adult and making them feel good is not necessarily enough to motivate care for a child.  Luckily, cuteness has at least two additional consequences that increase a cute infant’s chance of survival.

First, the pathways that are activated when we experience pleasure are also involved in motivation.  As a result of this, perhaps, motivation to view or care for a baby is increased in correlation with its cuteness.  This works even when are not related to the baby [13,14], which is why I can’t blame that lady in the supermarket for trying to take me home that one time.  In addition to baby-specific changes in behavior, there is evidence that motivation and attention are increased more generally after we view a cute baby [15].  For example, Nittono et al. [16] found that participants who first viewed images of baby animals performed better in (the Japanese version of) the game Operation and were better at a visual search task (basically, a boring version of Where’s Waldo) than participants who first viewed images of adult animals or food.


Science says: next time you play Operation (or even perform an actual operation), binge on some cute baby or animal pics first! (Note: Science does not actually say this.  There is not enough evidence to support this claim.  But you should do it anyway because cute!!)

Finally, in addition to these unconscious mechanisms, some research suggests that adults do a bit of rationalizing to justify expending the energy required to care for cute babies.  Experimentally, adults endow cute babies (and babyish adults) with additional positive qualities, such as friendliness, honesty, and warmth [17,18].  And these potentially unearned positive descriptors might justify their taking care of a child who might be truly unlikeable and untrustworthy (e.g., me).


This adorable baby polar bear is secretly evil.  But she looks so honest and trustworthy… give her all the tickles!!!

How Cuteness Happened: It’s Genetic

(my mom’s cute, too)

Clearly, cuteness is a powerful con.  Even though we might be onto babies and their sheisty schema, we continue to fall for the fraud.  And the evolutionary selection of cuteness has occurred across species and even in cartoon characters!  For example, in “A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse” the paleontologist Dr. Stephen Jay Gould illustrated the power of Kindenschema in popular culture [19].  Mickey, who started off as a thin, pointy-nosed mischief-maker in Steamboat Willie over time became more jovial and juvenile.  In his paper, Gould presented measurements of Mickey’s head size, eye size, and cranial vault (i.e., the distance from his nose to his ear, presumably where his brain sits) and showed that through each stage of evolution, Mickey has started to look more and more like his nephew Morty.


Disney has effectively used Kindchenschema to scam millions into buying Tsum Tsums.  I almost bought 10 of these at Downtown Disney last month.  So trifling.

In addition to selecting cuter Mickeys and teddy bears [20], humans have also selected cuter animal friends.  Domesticated animals exhibit what is sometimes called, “domestication syndrome” (a term borrowed from plant biology).  Features of mammalian domestication syndrome include increased docility, reductions in tooth size, floppy ears, reductions in brain size, and prolongation in juvenile behavior [21].  Basically, as we select for tamer animals, they also become cuter.  This has been demonstrated experimentally in long-running experiments on foxes, rats, and minks (read more about Dimitry K. Belyaev to learn more!).  And it not only happens in animals that humans actively domesticate but can also happen in species that self-domesticate—in which tamer individuals have been evolutionarily favored over aggressive individuals [22].

Genetic selection underlies the process of evolution, and the cross-species phenomenon of domestication syndrome suggests that the genetic changes associated with increased cuteness are the same as those involved in tameness.  There is still much work to be done in this field, but Wilkins, Wrangham, & Fitch [21] proposed that subtle changes in several genes contributing to the development and migration of neural crest cells (NCCs) may be responsible for domestication syndrome. Briefly, NCCs are stem cells that influence and give rise to many tissue types throughout the body.  When the migration of NCCs is limited, development can be altered in ways that seem to coincide with domestication syndrome (see the dog below for details!  Also, note that this theory suggests that the endowment of cute babies with positive characteristics may not be so baseless after all!).


Genetic reduction of NCC-derived tissues can have many effects on the body related to domestication syndrome and increased cuteness.  In this figure, Wilkins et al. [21] illustrate with blue arrows the various pathways of NCCs in the body and how they can influence a species’ behavior and appearance.

So, there are probably at least a couple of evolutionary processes that have occurred to promote the power of Kindenschema.  First (or maybe second), selection for tameness may have led to the cuter appearance of humans like myself.  And second (or first), humans’ sensitivity to cute stimuli has also been selected for since exposure to cute things may be beneficial to our survival (e.g., via increasing attention, described above, or prosocial behavior, described below).  And in a positive feedback loop, sensitivity to cuteness increases the survival of cute babies who grow up to be more docile and probably also very sensitive to other cute stimuli who then grow up to be more docile and probably also very sensitive to other cute stimuli…..  What an adorable world we live in!

But, it’s not all cuteness and cupcakes…


I know that “Cuteness and Cupcakes” is not a real phrase.  I just needed an excuse to share this gif.

Consequences of the Con: Cute Aggression

If you look at the picture below and want to punch something, you’re not alone.


OMG how am I still alive?

Many people experience aggression when overwhelmed by the cuteness of a child or animal.  In an unpublished experiment presented at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology meeting in 2013, for example, Yale psychologists Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragón found that participants who were given bubble wrap while watching a slideshow of cute animals popped significantly more bubbles than participants who watched funny or “normal” animal photographs [23].  Dyer and Aragon suggested that bubble-popping was a result of the urge to squeeze the cute animals in the show.  Why does this happen?  Is it true anger towards the adorable?  Do you really want to punch me because you’re mad that you just got played?

To be honest, probably not.  More recently, Aragón and colleagues (including Dyer), conducted experiments to test the hypothesis that the phenomenon of “cute aggression” has the same origins as tears of joy and a creepy smile that some people get when something really sad happens in a movie [24,25].  The authors propose that these “dimorphous expressions” (i.e., simultaneous displays of contradicting emotions) arise in order to regulate our emotions, not because we are consciously feeling two extreme emotions at once.  (In the case of cute aggression, the urge to be aggressive counts as the expression, which does not necessarily indicate the emotion of anger.)


Cute aggression may have the same origins as my favorite “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji, which was Oxford Dictionary’s “word” of 2015.  Sometimes we get so overwhelmed by one emotion that our brains compensate with the expression of the opposite emotion.

In other words, when we want to pinch the cheeks of a cute baby, it’s not because we are actually mad at it.  It’s just that we can’t take care of the baby if we are too overwhelmed to enact any of our nurturing instincts.  And sustaining high levels of any emotion could be harmful for our bodies (e.g., in the case of psychiatric illnesses [26,27]).  Therefore, our body counteracts our emotions in an extreme way.

Since the study of cute aggression is still in its infancy (lol, get it?), this proposed function of dimorphous expressions is far from definitive.  While we can continue speculating as to why we want to eat a baby, it might be more informative to investigate how we want to eat a baby.  No, I don’t mean grilled v. fried (!), but rather how does the activity in our cuteness-overwhelmed brains promote aggression.  Just as it might be informative to consider patients who experience pathological laughter and crying to study tears of joy [28], we might study people who exhibit abnormal aggression to figure out what parts of the brain might be temporarily inhibited or activated when we see something cute.  For example, we might hypothesize that overactivation of the OFC leads to overactivation of the amygdala but thankfully leaves the inhibition of the prefrontal cortex intact, resulting in feelings of aggression but the wherewithall to not actually hurt a baby.

In any case, my point is that if you are worried that we are getting too carried away with this cute business, we’re going to be ok.  All of my victims survived my cuteness because they came with a built-in mechanism (cute aggression) to protect them from getting too overwhelmed.

Now that I’ve gotten all of that off of my chest, I am feeling much less guilty about my cuteness.  And, considering the power and relative safety of this scam, I wonder if we might be able to harness the power of cuteness for good.

Applied cuteness

Recently, Sherman and Haidt [29] updated Lorenz’s conception of the function of cuteness.  Rather than conceptualizing cuteness as an innate releaser of specific, stereotyped caretaking behaviors, they proposed that cuteness acts more generally to increased socialization.  They proposed that, in contrast with disgust, cuteness encourages mentalization.  Mentalization is the ability to perceive others as possessing a mind with needs, desires, and goals.  Disgust with a stigmatized group of people, for example, can inhibit mentalization, enabling us to treat members of these “outgroups” as though they are less than human.  Cuteness, on the other hand, cuteness transcends ingroup and outgroup dynamics and encourages prosocial behavior, empathy, and compassion, not just related to the cute thing but in general [30].

What if we could use cuteness to make the world a better place!  My good friend Jeff Chang recently developed a therapeutic virtual reality experience, Itadakimasu, in which users can interact with extremely cute animals.  Having tried it myself (see the video below around 0:05 for proof), I can provide anecdotal evidence that it brought me a lot of joy.  Based on the cuteness studies presented above, it probably also made me a nicer person, at least temporarily.  And who knows, it might’ve made me a better surgeon, as well!

In summary, to integrate the theories proposed above, we can consider cuteness as a byproduct of selection for tameness.  Concurrently with—and perhaps consequently of—the selection for cuteness, sensitivity to cuteness was also selected for in the population.  In a positive feedback loop, we have become cuter and prefer cuter things (humans, animals, and inanimate objects included).  And if the evolution of Steamboat Willie Mickey to Tsum Tsum Mickey is any indication, we haven’t reached the limits of our cuteness yet.  Given the current social climate, the prosocial, inclusive power of cuteness might be just what we need.



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