Cuteness is a subjective term describing a type of attractiveness commonly associated with youth and appearance, as well as a scientific concept and analytical model in ethology, first introduced by Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz proposed the concept of baby schema (Kindchenschema), a set of facial and body features, that make a creature appear "cute" and activate ("release") in others the motivation to care for it. Cuteness may be ascribed to people as well as things that are regarded as attractive or charming.
Cuteness is usually characterized by (though not limited to) some combination of infant-like physical traits, especially small body size with a disproportionately large head, large eyes, a pleasantly fair, though not necessarily small nose, dimples, and round and softer body features. Infantile personality traits, such as playfulness, fragility, helplessness, curiosity, innocence, affectionate behavior, and a need to be nurtured are also generally considered cute.
Konrad Lorenz argued in 1949 that infantile features triggered nurturing responses in adults and that this was an evolutionary adaptation which helped ensure that adults cared for their children, ultimately securing the survival of the species. As evidence, Lorenz noted that humans react more positively to animals that resemble infants—with big eyes, big heads, shortened noses, etc.—than to animals that do not.
That is, humans prefer animals which exhibit pedomorphosis. Pedomorphosis is the retention of childlike characteristics—such as big heads or large eyes—into adulthood. The widely perceived cuteness of domesticated animals, such as dogs and cats, may be because humans selectively breed their pets for infant-like characteristics, including non-aggressive behavior and childlike appearance.
Some later scientific studies have provided further evidence for Lorenz's theory. For example, it has been shown that human adults react positively to infants who are stereotypically cute. Studies have also shown that responses to cuteness—and to facial attractiveness in general—seem to be similar across and within cultures. In a study conducted by Stephan Hamann of Emory University, he found using an fMRI, that cute pictures increased brain activity in the orbital frontal cortex.
Additionally, the phenomenon is not restricted to humans. The young of many mammal and bird species share a similar set of typical physical proportions, beyond absolute body size, that distinguish them from adults of their own species. In the recent finding of a juvenile Triceratops skull, one journalist suggested its features, which included "a shortened face and big eyes", were "probably as cute as a button—at least to its mother".
The perceived cuteness of an infant is influenced by the gender and behavior of the infant. In the Koyama et al. (2006) research, female infants are seen as cute for the physical attraction that female infants display more than male infants; whereas research by Karraker (1990) demonstrates that a caregiver's attention and involvement in the male infant's protection could be solely based on the perception of happiness and attractiveness of the child.
The gender of a person can determine their perception of the difference in cuteness. In a study by Sprengelmeyer et al. (2009) it was suggested that women were more sensitive to small differences in cuteness than the same aged men. This suggests that reproductive hormones in women are important for determining cuteness.
This finding has also been demonstrated in a study conducted by T.R. Alley in which he had 25 undergraduate students (consisting of 7 men and 18 women) rate cuteness of infants depending on different characteristics such as age, behavioral traits and physical characteristics such as head shape, and facial feature configuration.
Hormones and cuteness variation
There are suggestions that hormone levels can affect a person's perception of cuteness. Konrad Lorenz suggests that "caretaking behaviour and affective orientation" towards infants as an innate mechanism, and this is triggered by cute characteristics such as "chubby cheeks" and large eyes. The Sprengelmeyer et al. (2009) study expands on this claim by manipulating baby pictures to test groups on their ability to detect differences in cuteness. The studies show that premenopausal women detected cuteness better than same aged postmenopausal women. Furthermore to support this claim, women taking birth control pills that raise levels of reproductive hormones detect cuteness better than same aged women not taking the pill.
Sprengelmeyer gathered 24 young women, 24 young men, and 24 older women to participate in his study. He ran three studies in which images of white European babies were shown, and the participants were asked to rate them on a cuteness scale of one to seven. The study found differences among the groups in cuteness discrimination, which ruled out cohort and social influences on perceived cuteness. In the second study it was found that premenopausal women discriminated cuteness at a higher level than their postmenopausal female peers. This finding suggested a biological factor, which was then investigated further in the third study. Here, Sprengelmeyer compared cuteness sensitivity between premenopausal women who were, and were not taking oral contraceptives. The study concluded that post-perceptual processes were impacted by hormone levels (progesterone and estrogen specifically) in females, and thus impacted sensitivity to cuteness.
Caregiving correlates to cuteness
A study by Karraker (1990) suggested that "an adult's beliefs about the personality and expected behavior of an infant can influence the adult's interaction with the infant", and gave evidence that in this way "basic cuteness effects may occasionally be obscured in particular infants". Koyama (2006) said that an adult caregiver's perception of an infant's cuteness can motivate the amount of care and protection the caregiver provides, and the admiration demonstrated toward the infant, and concluded that "the adults' protective feeling for children appeared to be a more important criterion for the judgment of a boy's cuteness."
Melanie Glocker (2009) provided experimental evidence that infants' cuteness motivates caretaking in adults, even if they are not related to the infant. Glocker asked individuals to rate the level of cuteness of pictured infants and noted the motivation that these participants had to care for the infants. The research suggested that individuals' rating of the perceived cuteness of an infant corresponded to the level of motivation an individual had to care for this infant. Glocker and colleagues then used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to demonstrate that baby faces with higher content of baby schema features, generated more activation in the nucleus accumbens, a small brain area central to motivation and reward. This work elucidated the neural mechanism through which baby schema (Kindchenschema) may motivate ("release") caretaking behavior. Furthermore, cute infants were more likely to be adopted and rated as more "likeable, friendly, healthy and competent" than infants who were less cute. There is an implication that baby schema response is crucial to human development because it lays the foundation for care giving and the relationship between child and caretaker.
A study by Konrad Lorenz in the early 1940s found that the shape of an infant's head positively correlated with adult caregiving and an increased perception of "cute". However a study by Thomas Alley found no such correlation and pointed out faulty procedures in that study. Alley's study found that cephalic head shape of an infant did induce a positive response from adults, and these children were considered to be more "cute". In his study, Alley had 25 undergraduate students rate line drawings of an infant's face. The same drawing was used each time, however the cephalic head shape was changed using a cardioidal transformation (a transformation that models cephalic growth in relation to ageing process) to adjust the perceived age; other features of the face were not changed. The study concluded that a large head shape increased perceived cuteness, which then elicited a positive response in adult caretaking. The study also noted that perceived cuteness was also dependant on other physical and behavioural characteristics of the child, including age.
Cuteness is a major marketing tool in many cultures, such as Japan, with phenomena such as Pokémon or Hello Kitty. It is also an important selling point in the English-speaking world, where Elmo, Furby, Precious Moments, and many other cultural icons and products trade on their cuteness. It can be a factor in live action productions such as movies starring Shirley Temple, the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids trilogy, the Three Men and a Baby duology, and elements of One Good Cop, as well the successful documentary film March of the Penguins. This technique was emulated in the computer-animated film Happy Feet.
Stephen Jay Gould remarked on this phenomenon in an article for the journal Natural History, in which he pointed out that over time Mickey Mouse had been drawn more and more to resemble an infant—with a bigger head, bigger eyes, and so forth. Gould suggested that this change in Mickey's image was intended to increase his popularity by making him appear cuter.
The perception of cuteness is culturally diverse. The differences across cultures can be significantly associated to the need to be socially accepted.
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