Deirdre Barrett


On her book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

Cover Interview of July 18, 2010

A close-up

Most people don’t try to parse cuteness. Like pornography, we know it when we see it.  With a bit of examination, however, cuteness has easily quantifiable aesthetics. Take a moment to picture whatever you find cute—puppies, kittens, cartoon characters or your own children.  Cuteness is the type of attractiveness associated with youth; your “cute” objects no doubt have many youthful traits.

Infants of most species have a small body with a disproportionately large head, big eyes, small nose, chubby limbs and clumsy coordination.  Youthful behavior includes playfulness, affection, helplessness, and a need to be nurtured. A few characteristics such as dimples and baby-talk are unique to humans, but most are common across species.

Evolutionary biologists view “cuteness” as simply the mechanism by which infantile features trigger nurturing in adults—a crucial adaptation for survival.  Scientific studies find that definitions of cuteness are similar across cultures.  So are our responses.

Anyone disheartened by research demonstrating that attractive adults are better liked and better paid than their homelier peers will be further dismayed at studies on infant cuteness.  Articles such as “The Infant’s Physical Attractiveness: Its Effect on Bonding and Attachment” document that stereotypically cute babies receive the most attention from both strangers and their own parents.  They run less risk of abuse or neglect.  Cute children proceed to get better treatment from teachers. Fortunately, most babies are cute enough to attract sufficient nurturing from parents and the world around them.  The decline of cuteness normally coincides with the child’s diminished need for caretaking, which gradually shifts toward younger siblings.

Toy manufacturers are well aware of what’s cute.  Dolls have grown progressively cuter: first they looked like people, then like children, then like supernormal exaggerations of children.  In the 1990s, the Journal of Animal Behavior published a series of articles on a creature not of the wilderness but of the marketplace.

“The Evolution of the Teddy Bear” traced the origin to 1900 when President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed in the Rockies, after a hunt, with a brown bear in the background.  The early teddies looked like bears—with a low forehead and a long snout.  Over the years, the teddy “evolved” to become the cute popular creature of now, laden with infantile features, including a larger forehead and a shorter snout.  “It is obvious that the morphological changes that have occurred in teddies in the short span of a little over 100 years have contributed greatly to their reproductive fitness,” observed the authors.  “There seem to be teddies all over the place.”

With tongue in cheek, but metaphor firmly in mind, animal behaviorists continued publishing on the evolution of the teddy.  They pointed out that the changes might be likened to mutation, but are actually closer to “intelligent design,” diverting human resources to enable teddies to reproduce at a phenomenal rate.

Since a teddy bear is often a child’s first toy, one hypothesis that teddy specialists wanted to test was that they evolved to please infants or young children.  Researchers offered 4- to 8-year-old children their choice of teddies with adult features or ones with infantile features.  The four-year-olds chose the adult-featured bear almost two and a half times more often than the baby-featured bear.  Among the older children, 6 to 8 years of age, the babyish teddies were three times more likely to be chosen.

This makes perfect sense.  Very young children are the only beings immune to cuteness.  What good would it do a baby to attach to other babies?  It is clearly in the babies’ interest to attach to adults.

The function of the evolved teddy is to please adults—and older children who are already playing at nurturing.  These are the purchasers of toys supposedly bought for infants.  And teddies are increasingly bought overtly for adults.  Dressed in theme clothing, they are a phenomenon on college campuses.

Babies will hold the standard babyish teddy when they’re not offered the choice of an adult bear.  They attach to anything soft and warm, but it’s the tactile resemblance to their mother that draws a very young child to the teddy.