Cute science

kitten

Cute or what?

‘Cute’ is a concept that’s hard to explain but very easy to understand. Just look at that kitten, or watch this video of a slow loris holding a cocktail umbrella – you don’t need to be a professor to work out that they’re pretty cute. But what is it about a small furry animal (or a small baby) that makes us go ‘awwwwwww’? As with so many other problems in life, science is here to help us find the answer…

You might think that finding out why some animals are so cute is something that serious scientists wouldn’t waste their time on. But you’d be wrong. In April last year the journal ‘Emotion’ published a paper called Viewing cute images increases behavioral carefulness. The scientists, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia in America, summarised their work like this:

In 2 experiments, viewing very cute images (puppies and kittens) – as opposed to slightly cute images (dogs and cats) – led to superior performance on a subsequent fine-motor dexterity task (the children’s game “Operation”). This suggests that the human sensitivity to those possessing cute features may be an adaptation that facilitates caring for delicate human young.

Unfortunately I couldn’t get hold of the rest of the paper (I’d love to know how they picked the participants), but this summary gives a good idea of the basic theory to explain the ‘cute response’. Human babies are pretty much completely helpless when they’re born, so an urge that forces their parents to protect them and not drop them on their heads has got to be a good thing. Careful parents will raise more children, passing more of their genes on to the next generation, meaning the ‘cute response’ will spread.

This theory is an example of  ‘evolutionary psychology‘ – explaining behaviour in terms of how it could have helped our ancestors to survive. But although it’s easy to see why finding babies cute is very useful, it doesn’t explain the nuts and bolts of cuteness. Why do we find non-human babies cute? It’s not much use to our genes if we spend hours looking after a kitten or puppy. The fact that the cute response seems to blur into other species could perhaps give us a clue to what’s going on in our brains when see something cute.

Scientists think that ‘cute’ is a combination of things like a large head, big eyes, a small nose, and a round face. It’s quite easy to make even a tomato look cute by sticking a couple of eyes and a mouth on it. And these features bring us back to evolutionary psychology – what kind of animals have big eyes and round faces? Babies – the ones that need looking after.

Konrad Lorenz, the famous animal behaviourist, called this set of cute features the Kindchenschema, or ‘baby schema’. It seems that the way a cute appearance works is by causing a rush of ‘caregiving behaviour’ in the observer (in my experience this translates as a need to pick up the cute thing and hug it). What’s not yet clear is how this cause and effect mechanism works in the brain.

Research so far has suggested that seeing something cute stimulates areas of the brain that are linked with the anticipation of a reward – similar to the way in which the smell of baking bread makes us want to eat it. The reward in this case would be holding the cute thing, so we feel the urge to do just that. But as yet we just don’t understand enough about the brain to dig much deeper than this.

Still, what we know about the cute response does suggest some other ideas as to how and why it evolved. Perhaps the reason we find most babies cute (not just our own children) is that a co-operative approach to childcare was useful to our ancestors. Social animals like primates often care for babies that aren’t their own, and it’s thought that our ancestors may well have done the same.

In the modern world this means that it’s easy to manipulate our love of cuteness – just think how popular Hello Kitty and her friends are (they all have big heads). It’s even been suggested that the power of cute could be having a sinister effect on our efforts to save endangered species – an adorable panda may seem much more deserving than a rapidly disappearing species of stick insect. As one New Scientist reader wondered recently, will our craving for cuteness act as an evolutionary pressure, forcing ugly animals to become more cute to stay alive?

I hope our addiction to cuteness doesn’t mean too many weird creatures go extinct, but it is a great example of how we’re still in thrall to the evolutionary pressures that created us. The science of cute gives a whole new meaning to ‘survival of the fittest’…

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2 Responses to “Cute science”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    What about ugly babies? Won’t the pressure actually turn the other way as it’s not socially acceptable to neglect and abandon ugly babies so babies in general will become less cute?

    Does this mean that we should abandon ugly babies to die? Is this why Zeus and Oedipus were left to die on mountain-tops – not because of Oracles but because they were ugly babies?

    Also, I say let the pandas die out; if they can’t be arsed to mate then they don’t deserve to live.

  2. Francoise Says:

    “Why do we find non-human babies cute?”

    Probably because we’re so closely related to them. You would probably find that the closer we are related to an animal, the cuter we find its babies.

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