That’s So Cute!

Things are perceived as cute when they conform to the baby schema or have infant-like behavior because our brains release neurotransmitters and activate neural pathways that create feelings of happiness in response.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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By Annie Lam

I have a confession to make: I’m a stalker. I have watched Xiao Qi Ji, the Smithsonian National Zoo’s panda cub, via live cam nearly every day since his birth on August 21, 2020. I watched as he took his first steps, grinned as he tumbled down grassy hills, and laughed as he bounced back unscathed after falling out of trees. His adorable antics and growth helped me get through quarantine. I then saw him in person over midwinter break, and he was 110 pounds of energy and fluff. It’s undeniable: Xiao Qi Ji is adorable. But, on a scientific level, what determines “cuteness?” And why can cute things elicit such a strong reaction from us?

The concept of cuteness can be explained by the “baby schema” theory developed by ethologist and zoologist Konrad Lorenz in 1943. The “baby schema” is a set of infantile physical features such as large eyes, chubby cheeks, and round bodies, that we perceive as cute. Lorenz theorized that we are evolutionarily programmed to find these features adorable in order to activate our caretaking instincts, thus increasing the chances of offspring survival. Simply put, features common in infants prompt adults to feel attached to babies, causing them to take better care of them. This is especially beneficial to humans because our offspring require more care than most animal species.

In a study conducted by a group of scientists from the University of Muenster and the University of Pennsylvania, participants were shown images of human baby faces that were manipulated to have either high or low baby schema features. The subjects were divided into two groups, one of which was given the “Cuteness Task” while the other was given the “Caretaking Task.” The former was asked to report how cute each baby in the photo was on a five-point scale while the latter was asked how much they wanted to take care of each baby, also on a five-point scale. The results were clear: the higher the baby schema, the cuter people perceived the faces to be, and the stronger the caregiving response felt.

The baby schema isn’t only linked to human infants. Pandas, for example, have big eyes that are accentuated by their black eye patches. Because this aligns with the large eye size of babies, pandas are perceived as cute. Other physical features of human babies, such as the large head-to-body ratio, are seen in the young of many other animal species. Behavioral qualities can also make animals seem baby-like. Traits we observe in other animals, such as playfulness, clumsiness, vulnerability, and curiosity can remind us of babies, making us feel more attached to them. For example, when Xiao Qi Ji runs up to his mother, steals her apple, and scampers off to eat it, he embodies the playful mischief of a toddler, making him even more lovable.

Complex brain activity is stimulated by interacting with baby schemata. Stephan Hamann, a psychology professor at Emory University, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which is able to measure tiny changes in brain activity, while study participants were shown cute pictures of baby animals such as seal pups or kittens. When participants saw something cute, the middle of their orbitofrontal cortices was activated. This part of the brain is linked to the feeling of reward and pleasure. The study also found that the way that women and men respond to baby schema, at least on the physical level, is the same.

Cute images can also prompt the release of dopamine and oxytocin, creating a burst of happiness. Dopamine is linked to strong positive emotions and oxytocin is linked to lowered stress levels. A study by the University of Leeds found that watching cute animals can actually reduce stress and anxiety. 19 people, 15 of whom were students due to take an exam after the end of the study, were shown a 30-minute slideshow of cute animals. Researchers found that the average heart rate of the participants dropped from 72.2 beats per minute to 67.4 beats per minute, the average systolic blood pressure dropped 14.9 percent, and diastolic blood pressure dropped 18.28 percent. Using the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory, researchers also found a 35 percent decrease in anxiety. While certainly not a “cure” for anxiety and other mental health conditions, exposure to cute things can, at least in the short term, boost your mood and help you feel less stressed.

It’s clear: baby animals like Xiao Qi Ji are cute because their appearance and behavior align with what human babies display, and our brains have evolved to interpret this baby schema as pleasing in order to activate our caregiving response. We can’t underestimate the power of cuteness. It’s constantly being harnessed in the advertising industry, such as with the duckling on Dawn dish soap. In Xiao Qi Ji’s case, cuteness can save a species from the brink of extinction. In 2016, pandas were bumped off the endangered species list, and are now classified as vulnerable instead. Their adorable appearance helped generate funding for conservation efforts, as well as public pressure to protect China’s bamboo forests. Our biological response to cute things can truly have a profound impact on our behavior besides simply making us smile.