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Cuteness is a subjective term describing a type of attractiveness commonly associated with youth and appearance, as well as a scientific concept and analytical model in ethology, first introduced by Konrad Lorenz. Lorenz proposed the concept of baby schema (Kindchenschema), a set of facial and body features, that make a creature appear "cute" and activate ("release") in others the motivation to care for it. Cuteness may be ascribed to people as well as things that are regarded as attractive or charming.
Cuteness is usually characterized by (though not limited to) some combination of infant-like physical traits, especially small body size with a disproportionately large head, large eyes, a pleasantly fair, though not necessarily small nose, dimples, and round and softer body features. Infantile personality traits, such as playfulness, fragility, helplessness, curiosity, innocence, affectionate behavior, and a need to be nurtured are also generally considered cute.
Konrad Lorenz argued in 1949 that infantile features triggered nurturing responses in adults and that this was an evolutionary adaptation which helped ensure that adults cared for their children, ultimately securing the survival of the species. As evidence, Lorenz noted that humans react more positively to animals that resemble infants—with big eyes, big heads, shortened noses, etc.—than to animals that do not.
That is, humans prefer animals which exhibit pedomorphosis. Pedomorphosis is the retention of childlike characteristics—such as big heads or large eyes—into adulthood. The widely perceived cuteness of domesticated animals, such as dogs and cats, may be due to the fact that humans selectively breed their pets for infant-like characteristics, including non-aggressive behavior and childlike appearance.
Some later scientific studies have provided further evidence for Lorenz's theory. For example, it has been shown that human adults react positively to infants who are stereotypically cute. Studies have also shown that responses to cuteness—and to facial attractiveness in general—seem to be similar across and within cultures.
Additionally, the phenomenon is not restricted to humans. The young of many mammal and bird species share a similar set of typical physical proportions, beyond absolute body size, that distinguish them from adults of their own species. "Cute" features were also described in the recent finding of a baby Triceratops skull, suggesting that cuteness is an ancient and useful survival technique.
The perceived cuteness of an infant is influenced by the gender and behavior of the infant. In the Koyama et al. (2006) research, female infants are seen as cute for the physical attraction that female infants display more than male infants; whereas research by Karraker (1990) demonstrates that a caregiver's attention and involvement in the male infant's protection could be solely based on the perception of happiness and attractiveness of the child.
Cuteness is a major marketing tool in many cultures, such as that of Japan, with phenomena such as Pokémon or Hello Kitty. It is also an important selling point in the English-speaking world, where Elmo, Furby, Precious Moments, and many other cultural icons and products trade on their cuteness. It can be a factor in live action productions such as movies starring Shirley Temple, the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids trilogy, the Three Men and a Baby duology, and elements of One Good Cop, as well the successful documentary film March of the Penguins, where the noteworthy cuteness of the penguins was cited as a major reason for the film's outstanding appeal. This technique was emulated in the computer-animated film Happy Feet.
Stephen Jay Gould remarked on this phenomenon in an article for the journal Natural History, in which he pointed out that over time Mickey Mouse had been drawn more and more to resemble an infant—with a bigger head, bigger eyes, and so forth. Gould suggested that this change in Mickey's image was intended to increase his popularity by making him appear cuter.
The perception of cuteness is culturally diverse. The differences across cultures can be significantly associated to the need to be socially accepted.
A study by Karraker (1990) suggested that “an adult's beliefs about the personality and expected behavior of an infant can influence the adult's interaction with the infant”, and gave evidence that in this way "basic cuteness effects may occasionally be obscured in particular infants".
Koyama (2006) said that an adult caregiver's perception of an infant's cuteness can motivate the amount of care and protection the caregiver provides, and the admiration demonstrated toward the infant, and concluded that "the adults’ protective feeling for children appeared to be a more important criterion for the judgment of a boy’s cuteness."
Melanie Glocker (2009) provided experimental evidence that infants' cuteness motivates caretaking in adults, even if they are not related to the infant. Glocker asked individuals to rate the level of cuteness of pictured infants and noted the motivation that these participants had to care for the infants. The research suggested that individuals' rating of the perceived cuteness of an infant corresponded to the level of motivation an individual had to care for this infant. Melanie Glocker and colleagues then used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to demonstrate that baby faces with higher content of baby schema features, generated more activation in the Nucleus Accumbens, a small brain area central to the motivation and reward. This work elucidated the neural mechanism through which baby schema (Kindchenschema) may motivate ("release") caretaking behavior.