Why do we love everything cute

We all love little cats or pandas and adorable soft toys. But this irresistible attraction can play a cruel joke with us…

Спотыкающийся щенок, хомяк, грызущий мини-бурито, пухлый малыш, громко смеющийся… Мы тут же наклоняем головы в сторону и издаем «оооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооооолисьх за замечательную прелесть». Far from “cuckul”, “minion” (or cute in English) is spreading everywhere: in fashion, in Instagram filters, in food, and even in the programs of some presidential candidates posing with an animal … Millions of cute videos compete for our attention on the Web, and some furballs are incredibly successful, like Jiff Pom, the adorable Pomeranian who is followed by… 9.7 million followers. “While the Internet has created the mass distribution and sharing of cute images, this phenomenon is not new,” explains Vincent Lavoie, photography historian and author of the book. Too cute! Mythology of cute (PPU ed., 2020). In the early 20th century, pictures of adorable animals with big eyes were often used on postcards. »

It’s all in our brain

“Big eyes” is not at all anecdotal, but on the contrary, the essence of the matter. Because behind our love for the sweet is an emotion, tenderness for what seems to us youthful, and therefore vulnerable. Thus, the Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz from the 1940s showed our sensitivity to the “childish scheme”: large eyes, a round face, a disproportionate skull, thick and short limbs, and clumsy gestures.

Through evolution, humans have programmed themselves to feel empathy and want to protect beings with these characteristics in order to ensure their survival. “If human babies had only one eye and horns, we would consider it cute,” says Gergana Nenkov, professor of marketing at Boston College (USA). So everything that closely or remotely resembles a child’s drawing inexorably arouses sympathy. Adults with cute faces are perceived as warmer and more honest. An American study conducted in 2003 by Colgate University (USA) showed that these people are more likely to find a job! Specialists even suspect that some of the cutest dog breeds (pug, shih tzu, etc.) have been selected over the centuries to retain the childish and human traits of a flat muzzle and large eyes. “For the same reason, many objects today lose their corners and become rounded, such as cars (Mini or Fiat 500) to fit this pattern,” explains Vincent Lavoie.

Can we fight this tenderness? Nothing is less certain, because everything plays out at the level of our brain. A study by Stefan Hamann, a neuropsychologist at Emory University in the US, found that photographs of baby monkeys, pandas, and kittens elicit brain activity in areas that generate positive and rewarding emotions compared to neutral images. In particular, in the amygdala complex, a key and deep area of ​​emotional control, and the orbitofrontal cortex, which plays a role in decision-making processes. “This brain activation is associated with feeling more positive, but also with a desire to interact more. For example, looking longer at an object of interest to us, explains Stefan Hamann. With the impact on the body, too: we sweat more from the palms, and the heart beats faster. »

An aspiration that affects both men and women

According to a 2008 study published in the journal PLEASE one, a brain exposed to cute images of babies activates in as little as a seventh of a second. It’s much more than forming an opinion (and even faster when you hear a baby laugh, top of the cut!). In fact, we are forced to want to protect this small, vulnerable creature even before we realize it. Contrary to popular belief, this attraction affects both men and women. “While social causes may lead men to be more careful about cute images, we didn’t find any difference in brain response,” Stefan Hamann explains.

And that’s good, because cute makes us feel good! “Attractiveness releases oxytocin, the pleasure hormone, in our brains. With just a few clicks, you will have fun and relax,” explains Vincent Lavoie. A team from the University of Hiroshima, Japan, even claims that cuteness will increase our efficiency: during the study, participants were asked to play Dr. Mabul, a board game that consists of removing with pliers and without touching the edges of the plastic elements of the body of a virtual patient. Those who used to watch touching images turned out to be more diligent and skillful.

However, researchers have noticed that while visuals that respond to “childish schema” make us feel defensive, other forms of attraction encourage us to…consume. So, the team of Gergana Nenkov asked volunteers to test two ice cream spoons, one sober, and the other in the form of a funny character. “We noticed that our subjects ate more ice cream with the second scoop,” explains the researcher.

In the second experiment, the participants had to choose a text to read: one entertaining, the second educational. Those who had a crocodile stapler were more likely to choose funny text than those who did not. “These quirky objects seem to push us towards more pleasure, rewarding us right away,” she continues. Unknowingly, hundreds of parents exploit the effects of this cognitive bias every day by decorating their kids’ plates with cute things (a pasta clown with a cherry tomato nose, broccoli hair, etc.) to get them to eat. vegetables for example.

“Cute” can also provoke a certain aggressiveness.

Beneath his naive exterior, “cute” could seem innocent. However, it also serves to be heard. So kawaii, a Japanese word meaning both cute, vulnerable, adorable and fragile, has more than just aesthetic appeal. “This movement originated in Japan in the 1970s, at a time when the country embarked on a path of unbridled productivity. Young women adopt clothes, attitudes, and accessories that are reminiscent of childhood looks, indicative of their refusal to transition into adulthood. Kawaii in this sense is a form of social resistance,” explains Vincent Lavoie.

In addition, cuteness can generate a certain aggressiveness. Sometimes it causes conflicting emotions,” continues Vincent Lavoie. So it’s not uncommon for something or someone to be so cute that you want to eat them: don’t you say, “I’m going to eat you alive”? In the Philippines, the word gigil refers to “that tension we get in front of something unbearably cute”. This phenomenon called “cute aggression” was identified at the Department of Psychology at Yale University (USA) in 2013. The researchers who handed out the bubble wrap to the group noticed that the participants no longer popped the bubbles when viewing the cute pictures. How to explain this aggressiveness? Scientists have hypothesized that when a positive emotion becomes very intense, a negative emotion is created in contrast to it, which allows us to find a balance, a neutral emotional state, such as when we cry with joy or laugh nervously.

Even worse, cute can also be used as a propaganda tool. During armed conflicts, it aims to soften the image of soldiers. Dozens of photographs show Nazis playing or feeding kittens. More recently, images of jihadists embracing young cats have surfaced online with the hashtag #cats of jihad. “All wars and all peoples have used these images,” says Vincent Lavoie. We already see photos of Russian soldiers with cats appearing on the Web. The goal is to increase the soldier’s empathy based on this old idea that being kind to animals is proof of a period of kindness. The kitten here is a Trojan horse. »

Sometimes a weapon of war, sometimes a method of consolation or social resistance, cute plays on all fronts. “Basically, we alternate one genre with another. When exposed to horrifying news images, we compensate with positive images, sort of an antidote,” emphasizes Vincent Lavoie. And in case of an emotional crisis, you can always type “cute cat” in the search engine, it will become easier for you!

Even a stapler softens us

According to a theory from the 1940s, tested by scientists, objects or characters that seem cute to us often have common features that take the form of a child’s face: large eyes, a round face, a disproportionate skull.

Hello Kitty, Choupitude Icon (BOF)

Created in 1974 by a Japanese designer to decorate a purse, Hello Kitty, a plush cat toy with a red bow, is available in toys, bags, video games, cosmetics… The character, a symbol of Japanese kawaii culture, earns over $5 billion a year for Sanrio.

Mythology pollutes objects and even food, especially in Japan. Some kawaii restaurants serve rice in the shape of an animal, coffee with smiling moss, hamburgers with hearts on them…

Ugly and on the brink of extinction

Behind the panda, a symbol of endangered species conservation, are less cute creatures like the scrotal frog, the blobfish or, in this WWF ad, the bluefin tuna. “Most invertebrates look more like aliens,” said Simon Watt, founder of the British Society for the Conservation of Deformed Animals. “Today, 80% of life receives less than 10% of scientific attention and public donations. Aurelien Miral of the National Museum of Natural History showed that when asked “Which of these two organisms would you save?” “We choose for each proposed pair the one that is most genetically similar to us (orangutan, horse…) and refuse reptiles, fish, jellyfish… Fortunately, by protecting star animals (tiger, elephant, polar bear), we ensure survival species living in the same environment. To save the wading birds, save the otter!

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