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We go weak in the face of 'cute.' Here's why

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A hard-boiled news editor here at msnbc.com was recently amazed by the way the mood and sound of an entire newsroom changed when a baby appeared. Somebody brought the infant into the offices, and suddenly cooing, high-pitched voices, replaced the chatter and hum of reporters.

Which, naturally, led to a question: What’s up with that?

It’s not just squiggly, bright-eyed babes that can induce this reaction, but tiny baby clothes, or even non-human babies, like puppies and kittens. We all know we do this -- we’ve seen and heard it hundreds of times -- but why?

The short answer is that we like “cute.” Cute makes us feel good, and, in reaction, we want to approach whatever it is that’s cute, so we speak in higher voices, say gentle, soothing things, and are easily distracted from, say, reporting a story about politics or food safety.

In 1943, the famous ethologist Konrad Lorenz created a term he called “baby schema.” The baby schema is how a baby appears, with chubby cheeks; big, round eyes; soft chubby body; a head that seems far too big for its body. Babies are helpless. The only tool they have to motivate others to care for them is cuteness, and they wield the tool with amazing effect.

In 2009, a German-American team led by Melanie Glocker of the University of Muenster put adult women who had never given birth into an fMRI machine to look at their brains. They exposed the women to images of babies, and they manipulated the images to make the babies appear to be closer to, or further from, the ideal baby schema. (In other words, they uglied up the babies.)

The images that most adhered to the baby schema were deemed “cuter” by the women. All the images activated key brain regions involved in face processing and reward, especially the nucleus accumbens, a key reward region, but the higher the baby schema, the more powerful the accumbens activation. The cuter the baby, the better the women liked it, the more motivated they were to approach it. 

Other studies have shown that men react this way to babies, too, just not as powerfully as women. And one experiment showed that when adults looked at “very cute” images of puppies and kittens, or grown dogs and cats, those who looked at the puppies and kittens performed better on the kids’ game “Operation” indicating, the researchers said, that “human sensitivity to those possessing cute features may be an adaptation that facilitates caring for delicate human young.” 

In a fascinating study of how well cute sells, marketing researchers led by Curt Dommeyer of California State University Northridge, positioned themselves outside a Los Angeles grocery store and asked store patrons to stop and complete a survey about organ donation. Half the time, they displayed a picture of a baby boy dressed in a tiny tropical flower shirt on the table.

Without the picture, 26 percent of passersby agreed to complete the survey. With the picture, 49 percent did. A similar test, using a puppy this time, also got a higher response rate, though the difference wasn’t as big. In both tests, women were more likely to complete surveys than men, showing a stronger effect of cuteness on females.

No studies seem to have documented the raised voice pitch when we encounter babies, but it seems likely it’s the result of our brain’s motivating us to nurture. Evolution has wired our brains to be drawn in by cuteness which is why Knut, the baby polar bear, sparked nationwide love across Germany, while, say, the Hungerford’s Crawling Water Beetle goes unloved.     

Brian Alexander (www.BrianRAlexander.com) is co-author, with Larry Young PhD., of "The Chemistry Between Us: Love Sex and the Science of Attraction," (www.TheChemistryBetweenUs.com)  to be published Sept. 13.

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