Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Advantage of Being Cute

Most people would agree that babies are pretty damn cute. Put a grown man or woman in a room with an infant, and all bets are off, that baby is getting 100% of that man or woman's attention. Wild horses could not stop most people from cooing a baby, yet we don't usually question why. The truth?

That baby is pretty much helpless on its own, so if it's going to survive, it needs lots of attention from adults. Until it gets to the point where it can walk and talk on its own (and then some), the baby is going to lure you into caring for it with those adorable chubby cheeks and wide eyes full of wonder.

Ethologist Konrad Lorenz first put forth the idea that the typical cute baby, with a large head, round eyes, small nose and mouth, elicits a caregiving response from adults, and even suppresses aggressive behavior.  These features, known as a baby schema or a Kindchenschema, are a pretty useful thing for a baby to have. However, until recently this hypothesis was a bit shaky. Most studies that looked at people's responses to infantile adorableness used line drawings or unmanipulated photos of babies that could not control for other aspects known to affect emotional responses such as facial symmetry.

With the help of Photoshop, researcher Melanie Glocker and her team at the University of Pennsylvania created a situation where participants would only see differences in the baby schema of infants and be able to rate their cuteness and how much they desired to care for the babies. They took pictures of babies and created three photos of each baby: one undoctored, one changed to maximize the baby's cuteness, and one to minimize it.

In the center, the unmanipulated photo. With the less cute manipulated photo to the left, and the cute one to the right.
Then the researchers got a group of 122 undergraduates and split them into two groups: one group would rate each photo's cuteness, and the other would rate how much they wanted take care of the baby in each photo, both on a 1-5 scale.

As expected, participants rated the "high cuteness" manipulated photo as being significantly more cute than both the undoctored and "low cuteness" manipulated photos. Participants in the caregiving group also rated themselves as having a stronger desire to take care of the cuter babies.

Other research has suggested that the emotional impact of cuteness is influenced by female sex hormones, so the researchers hypothesized that women would be more strongly affected than men by cuteness. In fact, men and women rated the cuteness of babies pretty equally, and both men and women had a stronger desire to take care of cuter babies than less cute babies. However, women rated their desire to take care of babies of all cuteness higher than the men did. The researchers suggested that this could be a cultural as well as biological predisposition as historically in many cultures, women have generally been the primary caregivers of children.

The researchers also mentioned that before the rise of the nuclear family, childrearing was often done with the cooperation of friends and extended family. This could explain why both men and women have a strong desire to take care of babies, and why this desire extends to babies that they are not related to. After all, we are social animals, so we have to look out for each other!

Glocker, M.L.; Langleben, D.D.; Ruparel, K.; Loughead, J.W.; Gur, R.C.; Sachser, N. (2009). Baby Schema in Infant Faces Induces Cuteness Perception and Motivation for Caretaking in Adults. Ethology 115(3): 257-263.

Special thanks to my wonderful and wonderfully talented friend, Carolyn McGraw, for making that awesome Admiral Ackbar drawing! You can see more of her stuff here and here.


  1. I think Japanese culture has really grabbed a hold of this phenomenon and used it to great advantage in the field of advertising. Aspects of "kawaii" are everywhere, from packaging to corporate mascots. http://whatjapanthinks.com/2008/05/11/top-thirty-cutest-corporate-mascots-in-japan/ Seriously, what better way to get me to buy your product than make me want to grab it off the shelf and hug it. You can even start seeing this type of marketing reaching the US, with the Geico Gecko, the M&M's and Energizer Bunny. Also, think about some major us mascots and how creepy the look, Ronald McDonald, The Burger King etc. There is even a list from Time http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,2090074_2090076_2090115,00.html The creepiest of which aren't by any means cute.

    1. Haha yeah Japan definitely understands the power of cuteness. There's a really interesting/creepy anime whose first episode involves a girl who designs some wildly popular cute dog mascot thing. It's called Paranoia Agent, you should check it out!

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