The Science of 'Cute' and Our Infatuation With Baby Faces

The Science of 'Cute' and Our Infatuation With Baby Faces

When we think of 'cute' faces, infantile features often come to mind. A baby schema, or Kindchenschema, is the set of facial and bodily features that make a creature appear 'cute' and elicit caregiving instincts in others. 'Cute' is a subjective term, but scientists have taken an objective look at the youthful appearance and characteristics that evoke caring behaviors in adults. In this article, we'll explore the scientific concept of cuteness and how it affects our brains and behaviors.

The Evolutionary Theory Behind 'Cute'

In 1949, Konrad Lorenz proposed the theory that infantile features triggered caregiving responses in adults, helping ensure that adults cared for their children, thus securing the species' survival. Today, studies have provided further evidence for Lorenz's theory. For example, it has been demonstrated that adult humans react positively to infants who display stereotypical 'cute' features, and responses to cuteness seem to be similar across cultures.

Facial Characteristics Associated with 'Cute'

Doug Jones, a visiting scholar in anthropology at Cornell University, says that facial proportions change with age due to changes in hard and soft tissues, causing juvenile animals to have the characteristic 'cute' appearance of proportionately smaller snouts, higher foreheads, and larger eyes than their adult counterparts.

C. Sforza et al.'s study found that the faces of 'attractive' Northern Italian Caucasian children had larger foreheads, shorter jaws, larger and more prominent maxillas, wider faces, flatter faces, and larger anteroposterior facial dimensions than the Northern Italian Caucasian children used as a reference. These characteristics are part of the baby schema that elicits caregiving behaviors in adults.

The Impact of Hormones on Perception of 'Cute'

Studies suggest that hormone levels can affect a person's perception of 'cute.' Lorenz suggests that caregiving behavior and affection toward infants are triggered by cute characteristics, and this is exacerbated by reproductive hormones. Women in reproductive ages (premenopausal) can distinguish 'cute' better than postmenopausal women. Women taking birth control pills that raise hormone levels also detect 'cute' better than women not taking the pill. These findings suggest that reproductive hormones in women are important in determining the perception of 'cute.'

Influence of 'Cute' on Caregiving

A study by Karraker suggested that an adult's beliefs about an infant's personality and expected behavior can influence how they interact with the infant, and basic 'cute' effects may be obscured in particular infants. Koyama asserted that an adult caregiver's perception of an infant's cuteness can motivate the amount of care and protection provided to the infant and the admiration demonstrated toward the infant.

Neuroscientific Studies on 'Cute'

Stephan Hamann of Emory University used an fMRI to find that cute pictures increased brain activity in the orbital frontal cortex. Hamann and colleagues demonstrated that baby faces with higher baby schema features generated more activation in the nucleus accumbens, a brain area central to motivation and reward. These findings elucidate the neural mechanism through which baby schema may motivate caretaking behavior.

'Cute' in Non-Human Animals

Doug Jones says that the faces of monkeys, dogs, birds, and even the fronts of cars can be made to appear cuter by morphing them with a "cardioidal" (heart-shaped) mathematical transformation. Stephen Jay Gould said that Mickey Mouse had been drawn to resemble a juvenile more, with a relatively larger head, larger eyes, a larger and more bulging cranium, a less sloping and more rounded forehead, shorter, thicker, and "pudgier" legs, thicker arms, and a thicker snout, giving the appearance of being less protrusive. Nancy Etcoff, Ph.D., said that cartoonists capitalize on our innate preferences for juvenile features, and Mickey Mouse and Bambi are examples of this trend. Mark J. Estren, Ph.D., says that cute animals get more public attention and scientific study due to having physical characteristics that would be considered neotenous by evolutionary standards.

'Cute' Across Different Cultures

Jones says that the faces of monkeys, dogs, birds, and even the fronts of cars can be made to appear cuter by morphing them with a "cardioidal" (heart-shaped) mathematical transformation. There seems to be a universal appeal to 'cute' characteristics, and these traits evoke caregiving responses in adults. Across cultures, babies elicit caregiving responses due to possessing 'cute' features, and there is a trend for adults to impose 'cute' features on other adults to elicit caregiving responses.

Cognitive and Emotional Effects of 'Cute'

The perceived 'cuteness' of an infant is influenced by the gender and behavior of the infant. Studies have shown that women can detect 'cute' better than men

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