Does being 'cute' give children an advantage?

Paula Brown early years teacher, playworker, trainee play therapist and children’s storyteller
Tuesday, January 8, 2019

What makes children ‘cute’ and how do our perceptions influence our practice? It is important to reflect on this and ensure that each child we work with receives the same amount of attention, warmth and support.

The British definition of cute is attractive in a pretty, youthful and endearing way generally used for children, animals and objects. The ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed the concept of Kindchenschema or baby schema (Kringelbach et al., 2016). These were physical features which made a creature appear cute and motivated care-giving. This included a large head, round face and high forehead, large eyes, soft skin, chubby cheeks, small nose and mouth and plump body shape. Even an infant’s smell and the high, pure sounds of their gurgles elicit cuteness. Both adults and children seemingly prefer infant faces to adults’ faces and less cute children receive less attention.

In a species, such as humans, whose infants take a long time to mature, physical appeal is adaptive; it increases our chances of survival. Physical anthropologist Barry Bogin proposed that pattern of children’s growth, may intentionally increase the duration of their cuteness (Bogin, 1997). The human brain reaches adult size when the infant body is incomplete giving infants a ‘super cially infantile’ appearance and inviting a nurturing response.

Cuteness, caregiving and attachment theory attachment patterns begin to form as the infant’s brain develops. Secure attachment is essential for healthy neurological development and ideally adults should respond to infant cues predictably, soothing and regulating the infant.

Melanie Glocker found that infants who were stereotypically cute motivated caretaking in adults, even if the infant was unrelated to them (Aradhye, Vonk & Arida, 2015). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) she demonstrated that baby faces, generated more activation in the nucleus accumbens. This small brain area links with motivation and reward and might explain why cuteness motivates caregiving behaviour.

Infant cuteness traits peak at six months which coincide with the appearance of traditional attachment behaviours. Thus, infants are most appealing at the age at which they are trying the hardest to form new social bonds. Parents might be less responsive to cuteness traits of infants below six months simply because very young infants are less likely to survive (Franklin & Volk, 2018). is indicates that cuteness may be an adaptive response.

What remains unclear is whether responsiveness to baby cuteness is malleable. Can parents be trained to respond more positively to their infant’s cuteness? Conversely, could practitioners and parents train themselves to respond more effectively to children
who aren’t stereotypically cute? Self-esteem as an effective carer is a protective factor and work can be done on building both parent’s and practitioner’s self-esteem and attachment behaviours. Not simply automatic, attachment behaviours can be in influenced
by environmental factors such as parental stress, social support, adequate rest and resources as well as post-natal depression.

Cute infants are looked at longer, their mothers are more affectionate and playful with them more and they get less harsh punishments (Aradhye, Vonk & Arida, 2015). Conversely, less cute children are more likely to be abused. Abusive parents seem to perceive infant facial cues more negatively (Kropp & Haynes, 1987) and this might be an area for work with parents. Perceived cuteness seems to decrease at around four-and-a-half years which coincides with a more independent phase.

Cuteness indicating good health
Cuteness might be associated with health and good genes in the infant. Infants with low or high body weight, atypical facial features, genetic conditions and facial abnormalities such as birth marks, abnormal alignment of the eyes or a cleft lip receive lower cuteness ratings and diminish our caregiving response (Lewis, Roberson & Foulsham, 2017). Interestingly, low levels of infant happiness are also shown to reduce parental investments. This can result in lower levels of adoption and health and cuteness ratings.

The dark side of cute
Research indicates that we often harbour strange desires to squeeze cute things, for example squeezing children’s cheeks (Arnold, 2013). Commentators suggest that rather than wanting to hurt animals, it might be that sometimes things are just so cute we can’t stand it! Squeezing might be one way of venting the giddy feeling cute things sometimes give us.

Sometimes things are ‘cutified’ to make them ridiculous or vulnerable such as puppies dressed as sailors. Sometimes things look cuter when they are ailing – think of videos of kittens trying to stand up on ice!

We should reflect on this personally and professionally, also ensuring that each child we work with receives the same amount of attention and challenging ourselves to nd something likeable and appealing about each child.

Cuteness and the brain
The orbitofrontal cortex, which projects to the nucleus accumbens is heavily involved in orchestrating our emotions and pleasures, well-being, compassion. is includes our higher-order morality so that images of cute infants encourage us to donate money to a charity, for example.

Cuteness works on the brain in both fast and slow timescales. Sensory information denoting cuteness elicits fast attentional biasing, that is it grabs our attention rapidly (within 130 milliseconds). Infant cries also do this but through more negative methods. Responses
to cuteness traits, however, promote sociality, smiling, laughter, and more complex interactions designed to continue the interaction.

After the initial rapid response that cuteness elicits, slow appraisal processes such as intersubjectivity, play, pleasure and empathy are then activated which promote sociability. The metaphor might be that cuteness is the Trojan horse which opens up brain pathways to more complex systems of caregiving (Kringelbach et al., 2016).

Insensitivity to cuteness
Post-natal depression makes parents less sensitive to infant cues such as cuteness and resulting lowered attention to the infant may lead to socio-emotional problems. Measuring rapid responses to infant cuteness might be to introduce a new way to measure post-natal depression.

Cuteness primes and facilitates ‘approach’ distress- relieving behaviour. These embodied responses can be subtle and work on both emotional and motor systems, drawing us nearer the ‘cute’ person or object. Indeed, research subjects playing a game of ‘Operation’ performed more carefully when shown images of cute animals (Sherman, Haidt & Coan, 2009).

Various genetic and organic factors impact resiliency. It has been noted that girls, those with an easy-going temperament, ‘cute’ children and those with above- average intelligence tend to be more resilient. While there are many other factors in influencing resilience such as relationships with parents, peers, teachers and others, sense of humour and conflict resolution skills, it is worth noting how cuteness increases resilience with regard to our own biases towards stereotypically cute children.

Gender differences
Although there are mixed results on the differences in the perception of cuteness between women and men, it appears that cuteness seems to make women more motivated towards caregiving, possibly due to their evolutionary bias. There seems to be no difference in cuteness ratings between girls and boys.

Perhaps men are less willing to admit to, or are less conscious of cuteness cues. The difference in gender response may be mitigated by expertise with fathers showing similarly empathic brain responses to their own infant as mothers. Similarly, parents’ brains are more responsive to their own, rather than to unfamiliar infants. Interestingly pet owners are more responsive to infant cuteness, reinforcing the idea of expertise predisposing responsiveness to cuteness.

Research on whether hormones might be responsible for supporting emotional responses towards infant cuteness is mixed. It is possible that the hormones oestrogen and progesterone are unlikely to affect sensitivity to cuteness whereas testosterone, prolactin and oxytocin may do (Hahn et al., 2015).

Cuteness and personality
Easy-going temperaments are perceived as cuter and teachers have attributed more intelligence and social responsiveness to physically attractive children. Conversely, physically unattractive children had lower levels of functioning and future difficulties in peer relationships than their more attractive counterparts.

Adults described children as cute when they were surprised innocently, when they smiled mischievously, when they toddle, when they share their favourite things and when they try to imitate adult behaviour. They also incite cuteness-induced compassion when they cling to adults, smile, cry or look ashamed.

Generally, a boy’s cuteness is based more on a general protective feeling and on the boy imitating adult behaviour whereas adults felt the girl’s cuteness was based on her physical characteristics. Initial cuteness ratings for children can be altered by subsequent perceptions of personality.

Media and Marketing
‘Cuteness’ is used widely in the media, from YouTube videos of puppies to emoticons making it one of the dominant aesthetics of the twenty-first century. Even Mickey Mouse has transformed 
over the years becoming more infant-like and cute and LEGO® has carefully designed their Mini figures and Friends sets to be cute. Cute-shaped food products boost consumption inducing sensations of playfulness, indulgence, fun and reward.

Interestingly, there are terms for cute across languages with very different roots; moni in Spanish, kawaii in Japanese, mignon in French. However, there is no corresponding word for the emotional response that ‘cute’ induces in any language.

Development Matters
The Development Matters of the Foundation Stage reminds us to treat children fairly and to tune in sensitively to all babies, to provide warm, loving, consistent care and respond quickly to babies’ needs. One of the roles of the key person is to make those slow, complex bonds mentioned earlier and to see beyond the superficial cuteness.

We might do well to be aware of favoured ‘types’. Personally, I know that I like bright, cheeky, curious, talkative children. However, aware of this bias, I endeavour to really value the quieter, more thoughtful children and children who can too easily become ‘invisible’; sometimes more difficult children need extra thought around building their self-esteem. There may be a reinforcing effect which makes people react positively to smiley, cute babies enhancing their sociability and the converse for less sociable babies. It is also useful to remember that the Western world is somewhat biased towards extrovert, expressive people.

‘Children are undoubtedly the most photographed and the least listened to members of society’, Roger Hart. We must guard also against ‘cutifying’ our children, ensuring that things like plays and nativity performances support children’s learning and development rather than simply presenting an opportunity to take photos of cute children. Strong relationships are needed to support all children in the development of reciprocity, theory of mind, empathy and joint attention. These relationships crucially support children’s ability to interact socially and regulate their arousal levels, the hallmark of mental health.

Key points
The baby schema defines ‘cute’ infant features across culture
We are naturally biased towards cute children which encourages caregiving
Outcomes for children who are not stereotypically ‘cute’ are poorer
We can reflect on our own practice to address these biases

Aradhye C, Vonk J & Arida D (2015). Adults’ responsiveness to children’s facial expressions. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 135 pp 56-7
Aragón O, Clark M, Dyer R & Bargh J (2015). Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion: Displays of Both Care and Aggression in Response to Cute Stimuli. Psychological Science 26 (3) pp 259-273
Arnold C (2013) Cuteness Inspires Aggression. Scientific American Mind 24 (3) p 1
Bogin B (1997) Evolutionary Hypotheses for Human Childhood. Yearbook of Physical
Anthropology vol. 40 pp 63–89
Franklin P & Volk A (2018) A review of infants’ and children’s facial cues’ influence on adults’ perceptions and behaviors. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 12 (4) pp 296–321
Golle J, Probst F, Mast F & Lobmaier J (2015) Preference for Cute Infants Does Not Depend on Their Ethnicity or Species: Evidence from Hypothetical Adoption and Donation Paradigms. PLOS ONE 10 (4
Hahn A, DeBruine L, Fisher C & Jones B (2015). The reward value of infant facial cuteness tracks within-subject changes in women’s salivary testosterone. Hormones and Behavior 67 pp 54-59
Kringelbach M, Stark E, Alexander C, Bornstein M & Stein A (2016). Review: On Cuteness: Unlocking the Parental Brain and Beyond. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 20 pp 545–558
Kropp J & Haynes O (1987). Abusive and Nonabusive Mothers’ Ability to Identify General and Specific Emotion Signals of Infants. Child Development 58 (1) p 18
Lewis J, Roberson D & Foulsham (2017). The impact of facial abnormalities and their spatial position on perception of cuteness and attractiveness of infant faces. PLoS ONE 12 (7) pp 1–17
Sherman G, Haidt J & Coan J (2009). Viewing cute images

Keep up to date with Early Years!

Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with Early Years education, process and events! We promise we won't spam you!