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Why You Need More Cuteness in Life

The psychology of cuteness and how to make it work for you.

In an article titled “Cute studies: An emerging field," Joshua Paul Dale makes the case that the desire for cuteness is on the rise, and it's time to take it seriously.

The cuteness trend (often referred to as "kawaii"), began in Japan in the 1970s, slowly spread through East Asia, and is now becoming mainstream across the world. Today, cuteness permeates everything from fashion to entertainment to product design (an emerging field called "cuteness engineering").

So, what is the psychology of cuteness, and why does it matter?

Dog and kitten friends
Source: Henrythecoloradodog

In 1943, the famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz coined the term ‘kindchenschema’ (aka infant schema). He recognized that there are certain features, known as infantile physical morphology, that trigger an "aww" response. Think about it. What do puppies, monkeys, and babies have in common? Lorenz pointed out that juvenile features like big eyes, chubby cheeks, and a wobbly walk all appear adorable to us. And what happens when we find something adorable? We turn all our attention to it, connect with it, and want to protect it. Lorenz (and Darwin before him) theorized that cuteness is adaptive because it can melt the toughest of hearts and swiftly transform us into devoted caretakers.

In case you haven't felt the overwhelming power of cuteness first-hand, there is now a good deal of research confirming this captive caretaker hypothesis. In one creative experiment, researchers Sherman, Haidt, and Coan (2009) showed participants images of either adult cats and dogs (the slightly cute condition) or tiny puppies and kittens (the very cute condition). Then, they had participants play a game of Operation. They found that exposure to the cuter animals made participants play better. In other words, it made them more careful. (Maybe there should be more puppies in real operating rooms???)

Operation the Game
Source: Hasbro

Neuroimagining research by Kringelbach et. al. (2016) found that the cuteness response isn't just elicited by visual features. It can also be triggered by adorable (infantile) sounds and smells. And cuteness doesn't only lead to carefulness and better caregiving, it also plays an important role in bonding, empathy, and well-being.

So, how can you make cuteness work for you?

  1. Get a dose of cute when you need to be careful. Researchers Nittono et. al. (2012) found that looking at adorable animal photos before doing a task, narrowed focus and increased accuracy. Need to do something that requires caution, concentration, or attention to detail? Go ahead and indulge in some cuteness exposure therapy!

  2. Turn your own cuteness dial up (or down). Want to convince someone to do something? Instead of arguing or amplifying your power, experiment with turning your power down to invite a more compassionate response. On the other hand, if you want to feel more independence, channel your most adult vs. childlike characteristics (e.g., take up more space, lower your voice).

  3. Personify your things to take better care of them. Have a bad habit of losing or abusing your belongings? Trick yourself into being more attentive, caring, and sustainable by personifying your possessions. You can literally get more adorable appliances (check out this sneezing toaster by designer Hyerim Shin), or you can imagine your belongings as cute, helpless creatures, relying on you to take good care of them.

  4. Picture people's inner child to defuse frustration. If you can make physical things appear cuter, why not make the difficult people in your life cuter too? When someone frustrates you or intimidates you, imagine what they were like as little kids. Better yet, picture that little inner child still inside of them and activate your sense of care and empathy rather than defensiveness.

  5. Add cuteness to your environment to feel more connected. To experience softer, warmer, calmer and more connected feelings, swap your stern furniture, art, and products for rounder, cuddlier alternatives. Check out this emerging trend of neotenic design - furniture with "juvenile characteristics" to create a more playful and whimsical environment.

Want to learn more about cuteness? Check out Episode 1 of the psychology-meets-comedy podcast Talk Psych to Me.

Facebook image: Foonia/Shuterstock


Kringelbach, Stark, Alexander, Bornstein, & Stein, 2016: On Cuteness: Unlocking the Parental Brain and Beyond

Sherman, Haidt, & James Coan, 2009: Viewing Cute Images Increases Behavioral Carefulness

Nittono, et. al., 2012: The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus