You Want Cute? You Can’t Handle Cute!

Apparently, witnessing cuteness is the Achilles heel of humankind. We can’t handle it. Or so evidence arising from some new research might seem to suggest.

Cute, cuddly koala eating a gum leaf

Why We Go Crazy for Cute reports on research at Yale University investigating some seemingly contradictory, but common reactions to cuteness. Past research has generally suggested “cuteness” is a cluster of features associated with human infants that inspire us to be gentle and caring. There has been research suggesting that cute animal images may boost work performance, for example. In that study, viewing images of cute animals improved performance on the game Operation (who said research was boring?!). The study Manipulation of Infant-Like Traits Affects Perceived Cuteness of Infant, Adult and Cat Faces suggests our perceptions of cuteness relate to how much a thing reminds us of an infant, and nicely fits with the theory that our responses to cuteness are about motivating us to nurture our young.

Cute baby

So now along comes this new research, which throws an entirely new perspective on cuteness. Researchers performed a few studies. In one, they confirmed people have tendencies to make statements suggesting loss-of-control – not being able to handle how cute something is. People also talk about wanting to “squish”, squeeze or “grrrr” at cute things seen in pictures.

In another study the Yale researchers showed that these statements were a little more than just paradoxical verbal expressions of overwhelming cuteness. Participants who were given bubble-wrap to pop while viewing images were found to have popped significantly more bubbles when looking at pictures of cute things than when looking at pictures of funny or neutral things.

Cute spotted quoll in zoo

It is pretty clear that these seemingly almost aggressive impulses, present in ordinary people in the face of cuteness, do not translate to sinister actions in the real world. Have a read of the source article – Why We Go Crazy for Cute – to see some of the theories the researchers propose to explain this paradox.

At the very least, next time you’re challenged to a game of Operation, make sure to prep by looking at plenty of cute photos to give yourself that competitive edge. And maybe give your surgeon a book of kitten photos before your next surgery.

What do you think? Why the urge to pinch those cute little baby cheeks?

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

3 Comments

  1. Who comes up with these studies? Seriously… popping bubblewrap??? I’m so glad governments are funding research that will enable us to deal with the serious threat of bubblewrap in the near future. :/

    • Don’t you mean “… that will enable us to deal with the serious threat to bubblewrap in the near future”? With cute animal photo sharing rising exponentially, I can imagine bubblewrap quickly becoming a scarce resource. If the researchers watched more Red Dwarf they would have known to associate bubblewrap popping with tension release, and not aggression.

  2. I’m not feeling terribly enlightened/convinced…guess I can still exclaim over the cuteness of something/someone without grave concern.

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