Think of the cutest puppy, kitten or baby you’ve ever seen. Now what sound did you just make? Was it an “Awwwww?” Or did you want to pinch, bite or squeeze it? In this episode, we’ll find out why this is a natural reaction to cute and why we’re so easily distracted by cute things.
• See the scroll of the rabbits and frogs wrestling that artist Ryuta Nakajima mentioned here.
• See illustrations by Japanese artist Okamoto Kiichi, who was one of the first to popularize the kawaii aesthetic after World War II.
Why do we like cute things?
We all know cute things when we see them — but why don’t we react to grownups the way we react to babies? Or flowers, instead of kittens?
The answer can be found in evolutionary biology, says Dr. Sandra Pimentel, a psychologist at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York. “If we think about evolution, our goal as a species is to survive and pass on our genes.”
The way we pass on our genes is by having babies, but babies need us to take care of them and keep them alive.
“By finding things cute we’re more likely to want to take care of them and protect them,” Pimentel said. “They’re more likely to get the attention of the adults around them, remind them, ‘Hey, take care of me. We’re helpless here.'”
Our brains make us enjoy looking at cute things by rewarding us with dopamine, a chemical that makes us feel intensely happy.
The physical traits of babies are also features that we find cute when they show up on other things: baby animals, cartoon characters, even cars.
These features were called kindchenschema by ethologist Konrad Lorenz in 1949. What do we find cute?
• Big head relative to body size • Larger forehead • Large eyes • Round cheeks • Small chin • Small nose
Other studies have shown that our brains want to give cute things extra attention over non-cute things. So it makes sense that these characteristically cute features show up in marketing a lot, too.
“There’s a ton of psychology in marketing so that’s usually not by accident,” Pimentel said. “What’s going to make things more likely for people to buy them with money or their time.”
If we like cute things so much, why do we want to bite them?
Our brains love looking at cute things, but why do we react them the way that we do?
Cuteness often elicits a reaction that appears aggressive on its surface. It is expressed as clenched fists, bared teeth and the utterance of something like, “You’re so cute I could eat you up!”
Dr. Oriana Aragon, a psychologist at Clemson University, has studied this cute aggression: the desire to bite, squeeze, or eat something because it’s so cute.
It’s common — in fact, there are phrases to describe this feeling in many different languages. One is the Tagalog word gigil,which means the gritting of teeth and the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute. It’s one of those excellent words that says in one what takes many to say in English.
So even though you might say you might want to eat something cute, you’re not actually feeling aggression — you’re just expressing it.
This is called dimorphous expression — when you express something different than what you’re feeling. The same thing happens when you cry when you’re happy or laugh when you’re nervous.
Dimorphous expression is also behind another common reaction to cuteness. This one expresses as sadness: It involves the sound “awww” and an exaggerated frown.
So when you see something cute, you’re filled with positive feelings, but they can come out looking like aggression or sadness.
Why can’t we just smile and look happy when we’re happy?
Why does this dimorphous expression happen?
“There are some indications that when people express this way they come down from this strong emotion a little better,” Aragon said. “It seems it might help to regulate emotion.”
Aragon is continuing to study these reactions. She wants to find out if these dimorphous expressions are the cause of the quick recovery, or if people who do that just happen to recover faster anyway.
She’s also curious to know what babies think of these reactions to their cuteness.
“I wonder, as a psychologist, I wonder: What is that baby thinking?” Aragon said. “They encounter these little snarling faces of people looking at them who think they’re adorable, and babies are soaking up information. I wonder if it gives baby an idea that faces can come about in a playful way or if it educates baby about emotion expression. These are things that still have to be tested.”
So next time you want to nibble on a baby’s cheeks, or cry at a wedding, or laugh when you’re nervous, know that it’s normal — and maybe even helpful — to deal with strong emotions in this way.
MOLLY BLOOM: You've joined us on journeys to the inside of volcanoes, to the deepest depths of the ocean, and to outer space. Help keep the adventure going with a tax deductible year-end gift to Brains On. Make your contribution today at brains.org/donate.
You're listening to Brains On from MPR News and Southern California Public Radio. I'm Molly Bloom. We're serious about being curious. And actually, we're going to start with a mystery sound of sorts. What does this sound mean to you?
If you guessed cuteness, you're absolutely right. That is me and my colleague John Collins looking at cute pictures of puppies. They're so cute little puppies. And we need to thank these listeners for writing in with a question that allowed us to look at really cute pictures on the internet all week. Totally is research, by the way.
SAMUEL: Hi. My name is Samuel.
ADRIAN: And my name is Adrian.
SAMUEL: And we are from Juana Diaz, Puerto Rico.
ADRIAN: And our question is--
SAMUEL: Why do people find cute things, cute?
MOLLY BLOOM: Excellent question, Samuel and Adrian. We all know cute things when we see them. But why do we react to a baby that way?
And not a grownup?
GROWNUP: Goo goo ga ga?
MOLLY BLOOM: Or a kitten--
But not a flower.
SANDRA PIMENTEL: The answer seems to be in evolutionary biology.
MOLLY BLOOM: That's psychologist Dr. Sandra Pimentel. And she explained that the reason we find some things cute and not others is hardwired into us.
SANDRA PIMENTEL: So if we think about evolution, right, our goal as a species, as humans, is to survive and to pass out on our genes.
MOLLY BLOOM: And the way we pass on our genes is by having babies. But you may have noticed that babies can't do much on their own. They need us to take care of them and keep them alive. That's where the cuteness comes in.
SANDRA PIMENTEL: By finding things cute, we're more likely to want to take care of them and protect them. They're more likely to look vulnerable and remind us, hey, take care of me. I'm helpless here.
MOLLY BLOOM: So it is no surprise, then, that the features that we humans think of as cute are the features that babies have. These features were dubbed kindchenschema by the psychologists who first studied them. These features are big head relative to body size--
Larger forehead, large eyes, round cheeks, small chin, and a small nose. In other words, a baby face. And these features appear in baby animals, too. Like puppies, kittens, bunnies. All elicit this sound.
AUDIO TRACK: Aww.
MOLLY BLOOM: So how does our brain make us like looking at cute things? It rewards us with a chemical called dopamine. That can make us feel intensely happy.
SANDRA PIMENTEL: There's a study that had people looking at cute pictures. And what they found is that when people are looking at these cute pictures, their brain releases dopamine. And that's the same neurochemical brain chemical that gets released when we have something that we really enjoy eating. And that happens when we see cute pictures, too. So our brain is sending this message that, yeah, this feels good. This is pleasing. Keep at it. Keep looking at these cute things.
MOLLY BLOOM: Sandra said there are other studies that show our brains want to give cute things extra attention over non-cute things.
SANDRA PIMENTEL: So if we see something that's cute, we're more likely to focus on it. So again, our brain makes us pay attention to these cute features.
MOLLY BLOOM: Since our brains like cute thing so much, it makes sense that these characteristically cute features, these kindchenschema, show up in pop culture a lot, too. We see this stuff all the time. Think about Mickey Mouse or Hello Kitty. Both have rounded features, big heads, and are pretty darn cute.
MICKEY MOUSE: OK, fellers.
MOLLY BLOOM: The Japanese word for cute is kawai. It is everywhere. Kawai has inundated Japanese culture. I talked to Ryuta Nakajima. He's an artist who currently lives in Duluth, Minnesota, and is originally from Japan. He told me that kawai characters have the same traits we've been talking about-- big head, big eyes, little nose, rounded features. It really started to take off after World War II. But Ryuta sees it going back even farther than that.
RYUTA NAKAJIMA: The tradition of this Japanese cute thing probably go back way back to the scroll of a rabbit and a frog doing sumo wrestling. So I think there's a longing and desire for something that's funny and cute and that will allow you to forget about the hardship in life.
MOLLY BLOOM: Many companies have kawai mascots, as do cities and regions. There are kawai versions of eggs, towers, flowers, and the famous poop emoji. That's kawai, too.
RYUTA NAKAJIMA: Anything can be turned into kawai. That's the amazing thing about it.
MOLLY BLOOM: Some of the best known kawai characters are from Sanrio, like Hello Kitty. And then there is--
RYUTA NAKAJIMA: Now every single Pokemon character has a kawai quality built into it. That is at least 50 some years of Japanese anime engineering. It's not an accident those characters looks so desirable. Why Pikachu looks so desirable.
PIKACHU: Pika-Pika. Pikachu.
MOLLY BLOOM: Think about that. Pokemon are engineered by top notch talent just to make you go, aww. And because cute things demand our attention, these cute things are often used as a marketing tool to sell us stuff.
SANDRA PIMENTEL: There's a ton of psychology in marketing, right? We know this. And so these things are usually not by accident. And what's going to make things more likely for people to buy them, whether with money or buy them with their time.
MOLLY BLOOM: So companies might use cute characters to market their products or make the products cuter themselves. So cute can also be cunning when used as a marketing strategy. Remember this sound from earlier?
We're going to explain why we make that particular sound when we see something cute in just a bit. But first, we have another sound for you. It's time for the Mystery Sound.
[MYSTERY SOUND CUE]
AUDIO TRACK: Mystery sound.
MOLLY BLOOM: Here it is.
Any guesses? We'll be back with the answer later in the show.
Do you have a mystery sound you'd like to share with us? A question you want answered on the show? Or maybe you just want to send us a drawing of something really cute. Or a high five. You can email us any time at brainson@m-- as in Minnesota-- pr.org.
Now's the time in the show when we send high fives to all the kids who fuel this show with their creativity and energy if you've written to us, we will get to you, we promise. But we're hearing from so many of you that there's a bit of a wait. So thank you for your patience.
[LISTING HONOR ROLL]
AUDIO TRACK: Brains Honor Roll. High fives.
MOLLY BLOOM: Now let's get back to that mystery sound. Let's hear it again.
I'm getting hungry. Here's the answer.
WYATT: Hello. My name is Wyatt. And the sound you just heard was the sound of me popping popcorn with my dad and my sister Lila. And we live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
AUDIO TRACK: Brains On.
MOLLY BLOOM: Now I have something else I want you to help me with. I want you to think of the cutest puppy or kitten or baby that you've ever seen. Now what sound do you want to make when you think of that cuteness? Is it more of an aww, like we've been talking about? Or is it something like, oh, I just want to eat you up, I want to take a bite of you, you're so cute?
Those are both totally normal reactions to cuteness. But why? Why do we go, aww, or want to bite cute things? What is that about? Dr. Oriana Aragon from Clemson University wondered the same thing.
ORIANA ARAGON: I was watching late night television. And there was an actress on there. And she was talking about this really cute puppy that she saw.
ACTRESS: I don't know. I just want to squeeze something!
ACTRESS: And I--
ORIANA ARAGON: And she was gritting her teeth and clenching her hands into fists and making snarling faces when she was talking about the cute puppy. And I thought, wow, that's really interesting. If you looked at that on the surface, it doesn't look like something you would show on your face when looking at something cute. And I talked with my dad about it on the phone.
And he said, well, but you've got to think about grandmas and grandpas will pinch a baby's cheeks, too, and say, oh, you're so cute, I want to eat you up. And I thought, wow, you're right. That's different. And I'm a researcher. A psychologist by training. And I study emotions and how people express emotions. And so when I saw that and it really occurred to me that it seemed an odd reaction, I decided that that was something that I was going to study.
MOLLY BLOOM: And this cute aggression, the desire to bite, squeeze, or eat something because it is so cute, is a common emotion. There are phrases to describe this feeling in all sorts of different languages. French.
AUDIO TRACK: Gigil.
MOLLY BLOOM: That last one is Tagalog, the language spoken in the Philippines. It's a phrase that means the gritting of teeth and the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute. It's one of those excellent words that says in one what takes us many to say in English. So even though you might say, you're so cute, I could eat you up, and you might grit your teeth and clench your fists, you're not actually feeling aggression. You're just expressing it.
This is called dimorphous expression. When you're expressing something different than what you're feeling. The same thing, dimorphous expression, is happening when you cry when you're happy or laugh when you're nervous. The same thing is also happening when you make this sound.
AUDIO TRACK: Aww.
ORIANA ARAGON: And it comes with a pronounced frown, actually like a sad face. And it's another dimorphous expression.
MOLLY BLOOM: So when you see something cute, you're filled with positive feelings. But they can come out looking like aggression or sadness.
ORIANA ARAGON: Let's say a tennis athlete scores a victorious point on the court. They might clench their fists and make a growling, snarling face and go, yeah! And express aggression for their happiness. Or they might crumple down and start crying if it's the end of the match and just release. And you'll see tears of joy.
MOLLY BLOOM: Again, dimorphous expression. So why does this dimorphous expression happen? Why can't we just smile and look happy when we're happy?
ORIANA ARAGON: We have some indication that when people do express this way, that they come down from that really strong emotion a little better. So it seems like it might help to regulate emotion. Meaning help people to control their emotions.
MOLLY BLOOM: So it's possible these dimorphous expressions help us deal with overwhelming emotions. But there's still more research to be done. Oriana can say that people who have dimorphous expressions recover more quickly from extreme emotions. But she can't say if the dimorphous expression is the cause of the quick recovery or if people who do that just happen to recover faster anyway.
Oriana is excited to keep researching these reactions, these dimorphous expressions, to understand them more.
ORIANA ARAGON: As a psychologist, I think about all sides, right? So I wonder also, what is that baby thinking? Because they encounter these little snarling faces.
Of people looking at them. We think they're adorable. And babies are soaking up information. I wonder if in some way, it gives babies an idea that those faces can come about in a playful way. I wonder if it educates babies in any way about emotion, expression. These are things that still have to be tested.
But there are a lot of questions. These are new ideas. So there's a lot of questions out there.
MOLLY BLOOM: So next time you go aww or want to nibble on a baby's cheeks or cry at a wedding or laugh when you're nervous, know that you're dimorphously expressing yourself. Expressing a different emotion than you're actually feeling.
That's it for this episode of Brains On. If you want to send us a drawing of something super cute, you can email it to us at brainson@m-- as in Minnesota-- pr.org. You can also find our mailing address at our website, brainson.org. Many thanks to Jen Ehrlich, Tom Van Dyke, Nancy Nguyen, Na Nguyen, Daniela Roveda, Catherine Reggio, Chrissy Pease, Jeanette Feger, Julia Makayova, Yana Rezevkova, Nafali Naya Monitaki, and Lulu and Andy Doucet. Thanks for listening.