Chubby-cheeked babies, wide-eyed puppies and wobbly kittens: We know cute when we see it. We’re still learning, however, what it does to our brains and behavior.
Once thought to trigger a hardwired, primarily maternal, caregiving response, researchers are now learning that cuteness actually sets off unique brain activity — in women and men — that goes beyond making sure Junior wants for nothing. Marketers and product designers have known for decades that cuteness sells, but a series of recent studies suggests it’s less about caregiving and more about empathy, community and sharing.
In fact, understanding what cuteness is and how it affects us may help us harness its powers for good.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the science of cuteness starts with Nazis.
The Roots of Cute
In the 1930s, Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz rose to prominence studying animal behavior to explain why humans do what we do. Lorenz would eventually share a Nobel Prize for his work, and his influence in the field was immense. Virtually every academic study published on cuteness references his idea of kindchenschema, or “baby schema”: Infants of many mammal species have a suite of features, such as a large head, large eyes and a small nose, that prompt a caregiving response.
Lorenz suggested that kindchenschema triggered biologically built-in, rather than learned, behavior. This type of rapid, hardwired response to a stimulus, known as an innate releasing mechanism, means humans would seek to nurture and protect an infant even if they had never before seen a baby. And it’s not just young from our own kind that elicit this response; other species with kindchenschema traits can compel us to provide care, too.
Despite Lorenz’s prominence and the popularity of his kindchenschema work, something the myriad studies that name-drop him don’t mention is that he wasn’t a fan of our generalized cross-species cuteness response. It was at odds with his ideology, which aligned with Germany’s Third Reich.
“Lorenz — a card-carrying Nazi, eugenicist and advocate of the National Socialist doctrine of racial hygiene — actually believed that the fact that we feel baby animals are cute … is a bad thing,” says cultural theorist Joshua Paul Dale, a professor of English at Tokyo Gakugei University and an editor of The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness. “[Lorenz] considered this to be the ‘misfiring’ of a pure primal instinct to care only for one’s own young.”
After World War II, other researchers began to test Lorenz’s hypothesis about kindchenschema activating instinctual caregiving.
“They both succeeded and failed,” Dale says. He adds that while kindchenschema turned out to be an accurate way of defining cute stimuli, an individual’s response to it — shaped by personal experience, cultural variation and other factors — was not as automatic as the Austrian researcher had hypothesized.
Says Dale: “It does not operate mechanically like flushing a toilet, as Lorenz said.”
For scientists focused on the psychology of cuteness, the realization that our response to it is more complex than originally thought was the first hint that kindchenschema evokes more than just caregiving.
Meanwhile, researchers trying to understand how cuteness evolved in the first place began to look more closely at which species exhibit it.
Ewe Oughta Know
Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, believes cuteness can be explained through something called life history theory. It’s a framework for understanding how natural selection may have shaped a species’ anatomy and behavior at different stages of life.
At birth, many species must fend for themselves, such as the brush turkeys of Australia and Indonesia. Juveniles hatch fully feathered and virtually ready to fly. Other species, particularly mammals, are born fairly helpless and rely on parental care for an extended period.
“Every organism has limited resources, so how are we going to allocate that effort? It’s always a trade-off,” says Kruger. “We see a convergence of high intelligence and slower development. … There is a need for parental care because the brain is developing over a longer period of time.”
Or, as his University of Michigan colleague Stephanie Preston puts it: “If there’s pressure to evolve a bigger brain, the brain can only get so big and still make it through the birth canal. So you come out with the brain not fully finished, still needing to develop, and you need more parental care.”
Preston, a professor of psychology and director of the Ecological Neuroscience Lab, studies how and why behaviors evolved in both humans and other species. She notes that some form of kindchenschema turns up “across the board” in social mammals whose young require parental care.
Not every species has the same response, however.
For example, Preston says, sheep live in social groups, and all pregnant ewes in the group typically give birth at about the same time of year. Their lambs exhibit kindchenschema, but ewes “are very sensitive to kin recognition” and will only nurture their own offspring. It’s likely the response evolved to make sure Mom wasn’t wasting her milk on someone else’s baby.
On the other hand, rats do not have pups at the same time. They also have a more generalized response to cuteness and, in lab settings, will actively nurture and protect young that are not their own. When Lorenz pooh-poohed humans’ nonspecific cuteness response, he missed this benefit.
“In evolutionary terms, if it were a bad thing, a mechanism would have evolved to make the response more specific to our kin,” Preston says.
In fact, Dale and some other researchers see our generalized cuteness response as crucial to becoming the species we are today. Dale notes that human babies don’t attain “peak cuteness” until they’re five or six months old.
“This is the age when infants begin to be more aware of other people and their relationship to them, and thus are able to respond to socialization,” he says. “I don’t have children, but when I see a cute child, I smile and hope to receive a smile in return. I think that cuteness encourages us to help socialize children who are not our own, and that this was a revolutionary behavior that helped us to develop the cooperative skills and collaborative abilities that make us human.”
This Is Your Brain on Cute
Lorenz and other 20th-century researchers had limited tools to study the neurological activity that cuteness triggers. More recently, though, broader access to different types of brain scans has given scientists a much better view.
In a study published in 2009 in the journal PNAS, for example, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor brain activity when adults viewed images of infant faces. Some of the images had been digitally manipulated to enhance or reduce their kindchenschema.
Study participants rated the infant faces with enhanced kindchenschema as cuter. Those images also set off more activity in parts of the brain involved in reward processing, such as the precuneus, associated with attention, and the nucleus accumbens, which is linked to the anticipation of a reward.
The findings were among the first to show that kindchenschema trips our reward motivation wires, leading us to want to pay attention to, and care for, an infant, even if not our own.
Another thing we know: Our cuteness response is lightning-fast.
At about the same time as the PNAS study, University of Oxford neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach was studying cuteness using a different type of brain scan, magnetoencephalography (MEG). “It looks like a large hair dryer,” quips Kringelbach, adding that the benefit of MEG is that it shows not only which areas of the brain are activated, but also how quickly signals travel through them.
In a study published in PLOS One in 2008, Kringelbach’s team found that when they showed images of babies to adults, there was initial brain activity in the visual cortex and areas responsible for facial recognition — something the team expected. What they also found, however, was rapid activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, “an emotional part of the brain,” says Kringelbach, and an area also linked to reward-motivated behavior.
Images of unfamiliar infant faces activated this area in the brains of women and men, parents and nonparents, in a mere one-seventh of a second — a near-instant response that’s atypical.
Normally, Kringelbach says, before we respond to something emotionally, “you have to identify what is out there. Identify what it is, where it is and then form a judgment. If I am looking at a flower, for example, my brain uses that two-step process.”
Over the last decade, Kringelbach and colleagues have continued to use MEG to log brain activity in response to the cute and not-so-cute. They found that the “fast pathway” response to cuteness can light up not just with a baby’s face, but also their smell and the sound of their laughter.
This quick response did not occur, however, when study participants viewed adult faces or listened to adult voices. And when individuals looked at images of babies with the congenital deformity known as cleft lip, which disrupts kindchenschema, says Kringelbach, “There was a much diminished response in the orbitofrontal cortex.”
Does This Crocodile Make You Smile?
Mammals need mommies. (For many mammal species, fathers also play a role in parental caregiving.) So it’s no surprise that kindchenschema, or “baby schema,” shows up across Mammalia. This suite of facial features, including large eyes and a small nose and mouth, elicits a caregiving response that’s handy if you’re an infant dependent on getting that care.
But what about non-mammals?
University of Michigan evolutionary psychologist Daniel Kruger decided to investigate whether kindchenschema might also be present in birds and reptiles that provide parental care.
Kruger’s team showed college students images of baby birds and reptiles from eight different species. Four of the species were what’s called semiprecocial, meaning they required some parental care. The other four were superprecocial and independent from birth, no mom or dad needed.
Participants answered a series of questions about the animals, including whether they recognized the species, wanted to hold or pet the animal and, if they found it abandoned, would consider helping it.
The results, published in a series of studies between 2015 and 2017, were intriguing. Although participants knew little to nothing about most of the species pictured, they consistently rated the animals that required parental care as cuter and more likely to receive their attention and aid than the superprecocial animals.
“Kindchenschema elicits the caretaking reaction; it draws our attention and it seems like they need our help. There are similar mechanisms across species,” says Kruger.
The research is the first to establish that humans respond to kindchenschema in nonmammals and, crucially, that the level of the response is linked to the amount of parental care the young animals actually need. The studies suggest that kindchenschema and the caregiving response it triggers may have evolved very early in the evolutionary past we share with animals as disparate as birds and reptiles.
As to whether nonmammals respond to kindchenschema across species, as humans do, don’t expect that to get tested anytime soon. It’s not a great idea to put a crocodile and a penguin chick together to see what happens.
The Trojan Horse
Many studies, particularly in the 20th century, have identified a stronger cuteness response from women. When participants are asked to rate how cute babies are, men typically rate the infants lower than women do. However, brain scans tell a different story.
“Brains can’t lie. Their brains show the same response,” says Kringelbach. Differences do emerge if cultural expectations about gender-based division of labor leave women providing all of the parental care, he says, “but if men are involved in caring for the babies, their brains have the same response as women’s.”
This ultrafast gender-neutral response to cuteness activates more than our reward centers.
In a 2013 study, researchers recorded the brain activity of participants exposed to both positive and negative infant vocalizations: recordings of giggly, happy babble and a distress cry. The volunteers also listened to recordings of distress cries from adult humans, dogs and cats. Brain activity ticked up in response to the infant vocalizations markedly faster than all other stimuli, sometimes in as little as 50 milliseconds — that’s one-twentieth of a second.
“The infant crying elicited this very early response,” says Kringelbach, a co-author. “We are wired for babies.”
What’s intriguing about the rapid response time is the part of the brain that activated: the periaqueductal gray, an area associated not with reward, but with survival behavior and responding to threats.
“Your brain is put into ‘be ready for something’ mode,” Kringelbach says. “When there is a baby around, even if it is not crying, you are ready for something to happen.”
Other research has shown that both visual and auditory aspects of kindchenschema prime parents and nonparents alike to be on their A-game.
A 2012 study in PLOS One found that participants performed both motor dexterity and visual search tasks more accurately after viewing cute images versus non-cute images. In a separate study, Kringelbach’s team had participants listen to either a baby crying, an adult crying or birdsong for five minutes. Afterward, the volunteers played a game similar to the carnival classic whack-a-mole.
“The group that listened to the baby crying was much faster and much more accurate,” says Kringelbach. “You cannot help but react.”
While few people would call the distress cry of an infant “cute,” our hardwired, rapid reaction to it appears to be part of the cuteness response. Yet Kringelbach and others who study that response say it’s much more than the mechanical reaction Lorenz hypothesized.
The greatest power of cuteness may occur after the quick response. In a 2016 Trends in Cognitive Sciences essay, Kringelbach and his colleagues wrote, “Like a Trojan horse, cuteness opens doors that otherwise might remain shut.” Cuteness attracts, focuses and sustains our attention, creating a space in which we can interact positively with the cute object, whether it’s an infant, a puppy or that totes adorbs baby goat in pajamas on YouTube.
Increasingly, researchers see the cuteness response as less about parental nurturing and more about intense social behavior.
Coping With Cuteness
As many of us struggle with work-life balance, economic uncertainty and the ever-faster, ever-stronger fire hose of information, “cute breaks” are common.
Even the researchers who study cuteness do it.
“On a Monday morning that’s grim, I’ll put on the ‘four laughing babies’ video,” says neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach, referring to a former winner of America’s Funniest Home Videos that features, yes, four babies laughing. And that’s it. For more than a minute. “Suddenly, you think, ‘Can life get any better?’ ”
However, the same cuteness that helps you get through a difficult day may prevent you from moving on to better things.
“You endure,” says social psychologist Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes. “This is a new strategy by a lot of employers, such as having dogs or cats in the workplace. It helps people. I would stay in a bad job longer if there was a dog in the office!”
“People use cuteness to deal with the stress of jobs that are increasingly unstable and impermanent,” agrees cute studies pioneer Joshua Paul Dale, adding that “it can also be a form of communication that helps to mitigate these stresses by forming a new community.”
He cites a conversation with caregivers and aid workers assisting people in difficult situations. The individuals all belonged to a private Facebook group to share cute videos and images. “By sharing, they give each other permission to take a short break and enjoy a positive emotion that helps carry them through the grim realities they deal with every day,” says Dale.
Even for those of us far removed from dire situations, cuteness can be a communal glue.
“Posting a cute image or video, or sending one to a friend … signals your intention to reach out and share a positive emotion with others,” says Dale. “Posting a selfie at the Grand Canyon may make your friends jealous, since they can’t have the same experience. But putting bunny ears on your head with an Instagram filter and drawing a heart around the photo doesn’t make recipients feel like they lack something; rather, it gives them the warm feeling of cuteness.”
The Power and Peril of Cuteness
Our generalized response to kindchenschema, says Kringelbach, means that “babies are always in the in-group. That’s why they’re great marketing. Everybody wants to be with that baby.”
And cuteness sells. Mickey Mouse famously underwent a radical cute-ification in the decades after his 1928 debut. As the Disney empire expanded, Mickey morphed from a scrawny, sharp-featured rodent to a chubby embodiment of kindchenschema. Other pop culture mainstays exhibit elements of kindchenschema, from Japanese anime to, well, have you seen the number of cute animal memes and videos online?
The ubiquity of cuteness on the internet may be linked to its use as a coping strategy to provide comfort and a sense of community, even if we don’t consciously seek it. (See sidebar “Coping With Cuteness,” at left.)
“Cuteness has a really powerful influence on us, and we’re often unaware of it,” says social psychologist Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes, who studies cuteness at Consumption Research Norway, part of Oslo Metropolitan University.
And, like anything with the power to influence, cuteness can have a dark side.
“Cuteness is something you don’t think about because it’s so everyday and so innocuous,” Steinnes says. “You don’t look at a baby and think, ‘Oh, that’s dangerous.’ ”
“I use the term ‘evil cute’ to describe cuteness used for nefarious purposes,” cultural theorist Dale says. “Unfortunately, there are many examples, such as gaming companies that make slot machines with cute motifs like kittens to encourage solitary gamblers to play longer and spend more.”
In 2016, the terrorist organization ISIS — known for gruesome videos of torture and execution — unleashed a propaganda and recruitment campaign featuring armed fighters cuddling kittens. The images had nothing to do with eliciting a caregiving response. Instead, they likely were intended to tap into what a growing number of studies see as the true power of cuteness: its ability to make us feel intense empathy.
Or, as Steinnes and peers explain it, cuteness evokes kama muta. The researchers use the Sanskrit word, which they translate as a sudden intensification of communal sharing, because they say most Western languages lack a term that captures kama muta in full.
You may not have heard the word before, but you’ve probably experienced kama muta. Family reunions at airports, heartfelt speeches at weddings, even onscreen moments when beloved, long-parted fictional characters find each other again are common kama muta triggers.
Steinnes and her colleagues found that viewing and interacting with cute stimuli also evoked kama muta. The study, published in March in Frontiers in Psychology, had participants report how they felt after viewing cute videos. While the project did not involve brain scans (though they may be part of the team’s future research), Steinnes suspects that “the same brain systems activated when we see something cute also activate when we feel kama muta.”
Some of the videos shown in the study were less than 30 seconds long, but Steinnes says some participants reported being so moved that they had tears in their eyes.
“You can call it love, but it’s not how much you love someone; it’s the sudden intensification,” says UCLA psychological anthropologist Alan Page Fiske, a co-author on the paper, who co-leads the Kama Muta Lab.
Steinnes says the emotion encourages prosocial behavior, including helping others and sharing resources, even with individuals not considered part of your in-group. Because cuteness elicits kama muta, she adds, it “makes you more empathetic.”
The intensity of kama muta, Steinnes says, entices you “to experience it, again and again, so you seek out that stimuli.”
The ISIS fighters weren’t photographed cuddling kittens to seem cute. They were hitchhiking on the power of the cuteness response to make their audience more likely to empathize with them and even perceive them as part of their own group.
It’s the dark side of both cuteness and the kama muta that it elicits.
Which brings us back to, yes, Nazis.
Can Cuteness Save The World?
Cuteness and kama muta promote a bond between the person experiencing the response and the individual or object eliciting it. While cuteness springs from kindchenschema, it’s evoking the same kama muta as other, less innocuous triggers that lead people to feel an intense common purpose. History is rife with examples of how this can go horribly wrong.
Case in point: After Germany’s defeat in World War I and its subsequent economic collapse, an aspiring young politician tapped into the shared resentment and despair of his countrymen. In a series of impassioned beer hall speeches, Adolf Hitler fomented this bitterness into a potent, unified resolve to restore Germany to greatness.
“Once bonded, the question becomes what do they do with their solidarity,” says Fiske. “Hitler probably evoked kama muta in the biergarten, but, thank God, so did Churchill and Roosevelt.”
As scientists learn more about what cuteness does to the brain and the kama muta it elicits, some experts in the field believe it might be a way to reduce divisiveness in our increasingly fractured world.
What Kringelbach once called the Trojan horse of cuteness could be used for good, reducing discrimination against out-groups.
Both Steinnes and Kringelbach cited recent media coverage of refugees, asylum-seekers and other people in distress: When images of the groups include infants and young children, public perception is more positive, and the viewer’s desire to help is increased.
Says Steinnes: “Cuteness humanizes.”
Kringelbach is also working on a project with photographer Tim Flach, whose books include 2017’s haunting Endangered, featuring images of animal species nearing extinction. Together they hope to explore how cuteness can be used to help endangered species. It’s another way kindchenschema may improve the way we see each other and our environment, with greater empathy and a sense of commonality.
Says Kringelbach: “I like to think it really could change the world.”
Gemma Tarlach is senior editor at Discover. This story originally appeared in print as "Getting Cute."