When it comes to the cute­ness fac­tor, why does size mat­ter?

Popular Science - - CONTENTS - BY DANA G. SMITH FALL 2018


painstak­ingly craft an inch-and-a-half-long burrito us­ing den­tal tools? A ham­ster, of course. In the vi­ral YouTube video “Tiny Ham­ster Eat­ing Tiny Bur­ri­tos,” a man pre­pares a chicken and sin­gle black bean burrito, then serves it to the ro­dent wait­ing at a jam­jar table. The diner pulls the burrito off a poker-chip plate and stuffs the en­tire thing into its mouth, cheeks puffed as if in sat­is­fac­tion. It’s amaz­ing.

Videos like this are shared all over the in­ter­net, with minia­ture birth­day cel­e­bra­tions, ro­man­tic dates, and tiki par­ties star­ring cheru­bic an­i­mals in un­likely sit­u­a­tions. The clips have ac­cu­mu­lated mil­lions of views. So why do we find these tiny tableaus so sat­is­fy­ing? In part, it’s be­cause we’re en­gi­neered to ap­pre­ci­ate the smaller things in life.

The pro­tag­o­nist is typ­i­cally a small an­i­mal with a big head and big eyes, fea­tures col­lec­tively known as “baby schema”—a phrase coined in a 1943 pa­per by Aus­trian ethol­o­gist Kon­rad Lorenz. Hu­man in­fants are the pro­to­typ­i­cal em­bod­i­ment of baby schema. Be­cause our ba­bies are so help­less, Lorenz pro­posed, we evolved to find these char­ac­ter­is­tics cute so we’ll in­stinc­tu­ally want to take care of them. This re­sponse helps our species sur­vive. In fact, the power of baby schema is so strong, we’re even at­tracted to other be­ings with these traits.

“We’re not ro­bots or com­put­ers,” says Adrian David Cheok, di­rec­tor of the Imag­i­neer­ing In­sti­tute in Malaysia, who has stud­ied Kawaii, a cul­ture preva­lent in Ja­pan that cel­e­brates the adorable side of life. “Not only do we find other peo­ple’s chil­dren cute, we also find other an­i­mals cute, like pup­pies or kit­tens, be­cause they have sim­i­lar fea­tures to hu­man ba­bies.”

Re­search bears this out. Dozens of stud­ies show that the smaller and more stereo­typ­i­cally “baby” a hu­man or an­i­mal looks, the more we want to pro­tect it. One in­ves­ti­ga­tion found that see­ing pic­tures of baby an­i­mals makes us smile, while an­other dis­cov­ered that pho­tos of hu­man in­fants trig­ger the nu­cleus ac­cum­bens, a brain re­gion im­pli­cated in the an­tic­i­pa­tion of a re­ward. There’s even ev­i­dence that cute things help us con­cen­trate and per­form tasks bet­ter, the­o­ret­i­cally be­cause they sharpen the fo­cus of our at­ten­tion on the re­cip­i­ents of our care.

Our re­sponse to baby schema is so strong that it also spills out to­ward inan­i­mate ob­jects. In a 2011 study, re­searchers tweaked images of cars to make them em­body the baby schema, with huge head­lights and smaller grilles to re­flect in­fants’ big eyes and small noses. Col­lege stu­dents smiled more at pic­tures of the baby-faced au­tos, find­ing them more ap­peal­ing than the un­al­tered ver­sions.

Mim­ick­ing chubby-cheeked crit­ters to make goods more at­trac­tive might help sell cars, but not all lit­tle crea­tures have fea­tures man­u­fac­tur­ers should im­i­tate. Some small an­i­mals don’t ex­actly in­spire our cud­dle re­flex—who wants to ca­ress a cock­roach? That’s partly be­cause these beast­ies dis­play traits (bitty heads, large bod­ies, and beady eyes) that don’t fit the baby schema. Sure, some peo­ple have a soft spot for “ugly cute” an­i­mals, in­clud­ing some species of spi­ders, but these still fall on Lorenz’s spec­trum with big, bright peep­ers.

What about the things we squee over that don’t have eyes at all? Think of that dar­ling burrito. What it lacks in a face, it makes up for in sheer artistry. “When you’re look­ing at [things] and see­ing them as cute be­cause they’re small, you’re also see­ing them as cute be­cause they’re clev­erly made,” says Joshua Paul Dale, a fac­ulty mem­ber at Tokyo Gakugei Univer­sity and co-ed­i­tor of the book The Aes­thet­ics and Af­fects of Cute­ness.

It makes sense then that the orig­i­nal mean­ing of “cute” was “clever or shrewd.” Sim­ply put, we ap­pre­ci­ate the crafts­man­ship of small things—it’s more dif­fi­cult to make a burrito the size of a thumb than one as big as your fore­arm. A man ex­am­in­ing his fin­ished cre­ation for flaws with a den­tist’s mir­ror def­i­nitely meets that in­no­va­tive cri­te­ria.

These tiny, care­fully made items may also bring us joy be­cause they make us want to play. Psy­chol­o­gists Gary Sher­man and Jonathan Haidt the­o­rize that cute­ness trig­gers not just a pro­tec­tive im­pulse, but also a child­like re­sponse that en­cour­ages fun. To them, the de­sire to en­gage with cute things stems from our need to so­cial­ize chil­dren through play—an urge we trans­fer to adorable ob­jects.

Crafts­man­ship and play­ful­ness def­i­nitely fac­tor in to why we find pint-size things so charm­ing, but don’t dis­count the huge im­pact of their pe­tite pro­por­tions. Minia­ture scenes make us feel pow­er­ful as view­ers. An­thro­pol­o­gist Claude Lévi-Strauss sug­gests in The Sav­age Mind that we derive sat­is­fac­tion from mi­nus­cule ob­jects be­cause we can see and com­pre­hend them in their en­tirety, which makes them less threat­en­ing. Es­sen­tially, tiny towns, toy soldiers, and minia­ture tea sets make us feel like gods…or Godzil­las.

That power, of course, is all in your head. The rea­son you smile as you build a ship in a bot­tle or watch videos like “Tiny Birth­day for a Tiny Hedge­hog” (Look it up. You’re wel­come.) is that your brain is tak­ing in the sight of that care­fully frosted cake and small spiky body topped with a party hat and send­ing you men­tal re­wards, caus­ing you to feel for­mi­da­ble, fo­cused, happy, and ca­pable of keep­ing the weak and vul­ner­a­ble alive. Yes, it means we are eas­ily dom­i­nated by diminu­tive things, but so what? They’re adorable.

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