Bytes is a series briefly explaining a biological phenomenon. It’s name is a bad pun, but that’s alright. It’s bite-sized information about cool stuff.
Is this post just an excuse to include some cute animal photos in this blog? I can neither confirm or deny such an accusation. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am a huge fan of cute stuff. I enjoy miniatures and other things that as a young male I am not culturally supposed to like, but I accept the biological factors that cause me to react in a giddy way to stimuli that I perceive as cute.
On a somewhat related note, I would highly recommend that you search for “kittens in cups” if you would like to be overloaded with extreme cuteness.
So what causes us to find things cute?
Well, most of the science related to what we deem cute is psychological research instead of research from a real science, such as biology. Just for this one little Byte we will pretend that psychology is a real science and its conclusions aren’t derived from subjectivity and easily overturned within a decade. Why are we ignoring this? Anecdotal evidence from everyone that has ever lived.
Psychological studies have showed, actually measuring changes in behavior instead of self-survey results, that we act differently (primarily more carefully) when we reacting to a stimuli that might conversationally be referred to as cute. We react this way to things that exhibit the same morphology as a human infant.
Big heads, big eyes, and overall silly body proportions are what we perceive as cute. Individuals are also more likely to perceive something as cute according to their hormonal levels, especially estrogen. Women who have gone through menopause are less likely to find something cute than a woman of the same age who has not yet gone through menopause.
What about cats though? Not kittens, but cats. They have normal body proportions. This does have a small biological cause–the eyes. Cats have big, beautiful eyes. It is important to remember that cuteness is not something that can be described purely through biological means, because there is a huge cultural aspect of what we see as cute, or what we allow ourselves to perceive as cute.
For example, in most of western culture we see puppies as adorable. In some regions, such as the Middle East, they do not find puppies cute. The way Middle Eastern culture relates to dogs is different than how our culture relates to dogs. Here in Western Culture dogs are often owned as pets and kept well-groomed and in close proximity to the owner’s household. In other cultures, this is not the case. In areas that have substantial amounts of feral dogs especially, the people that live in those areas generally don’t find puppies to be cute. This is because they culturally associate these adorable puppies as simply younger feral dogs.
Of course this is a bit of a generalization. Within a culture there is a great variance in what otherwise similar individuals might perceive as cute. For example, even though kittens possess the entirety of the morphology found in infants some young males say that they don’t think kittens are cute. This may be because of a past bad experience with a cat, or perhaps they are trying to seem more tough to their friends.
Now that we understand why we perceive things as cute, we must answer why we even have such a perception? As previously discussed, while it is not entirely accurate it is fair to say that the primary response to handling something cute is to be careful.
Babies are pretty fragile. Your species isn’t going to last long if you are snapping them in half all the time. Thus, we are careful with cute stuff so we don’t go accidentally killing our own children–a bad strategy for the continuation of a species.