On Cuteness

Guest post by P. Winston Fettner

Cuteness, it seems, is more important than it’s been given credit for. It’s place in evolutionary aesthetics is essential, not only for its role in developing Darwinian and empirical approaches to aesthetics, but also in the application of evolutionary aesthetics to ethics, even suggesting a contribution to the ethics of human interaction with non-animal species. Here, I’d like to simply outline some of the distinctive features of cuteness, calling attention to some of the empirical research and arguing for more sustained inquiry.

Cuteness principally regards living creatures, and so counts as an aesthetic property that especially regards the natural world, unlike beauty or sublimity, for example, which can be aroused by human works like paintings or pyramids. It’s an aesthetic property that’s evolutionarily important, like disgust, horror, and sexual attraction, because it gives rise to adaptive responses to the environment.

Cuteness is widely thought to cause animal’s caregiving behavior toward their young, and has been called “a determinant of motherhood” because it triggers the “maternal care system.” [1] Cuteness is important in the formation of bonds between parents and children, and is associated with both playful aggression toward the offspring, and defensive aggression towards organisms that threaten the young. Hence, the little one’s cuteness, its “baby schema,” has a “reward value” [2] for the young organism, and plays an essential role in propagating the species.

Research in psychology has revealed that mothering behavior involves a whole set of responses to cute offspring, including electrocortical responses, stimulation of the oxytocin receptors, [3] “sensitivity to infant distress” (McElwain & Booth-LaForce, 2006), and so on. Cuteness is an experience which is pleasant and life-affirming for the subject, like the experience of beauty and unlike horror or disgust. And just as cuteness causes caregiving behavior, so does caregiving behavior cause cuteness, since it tends to select for genes that generate cute young. So, like many properties in evolutionary aesthetics, cuteness represents a causal feedback-loop, as in the case of sexual attraction, where sexual activity results in the birth of more sexy beasts.

Cuteness is a hinge between aesthetics and ethics, since it causes us to treat the other well, and it works even with young humans who aren’t necessarily our own offspring. But interestingly, the cuteness-response also works across species, thereby yielding possible grounds for a non-anthropocentric ethic. Humans are, of course, known to care for animals they consider to be cute, and it’s been strongly suggested that the “baby schema in [both] human and animal faces induces cuteness perception and gaze allocation in children.” [4]

And interestingly, it looks like this works both ways; animals also seem to display the cuteness response to members of other species, including humans. We often experience other animals as beautiful, and even praise the beauty of other humans by comparison to other animals, as feline or leonine or vulpine, for example. And yet, we don’t know whether other animals experience us as beautiful. We can, observe, however, other animals cleaning, cuddling, and gently playing with human young, and with the young of different animal species, especially in the case of our domestic dogs and cats. It’s not unreasonable to suggest, then, given those caregiving responses to our own children, that animals can perceive cuteness across species, as we ourselves can. [5] In other words, it seems from everyday experience that “the response to the baby schema may be extended to the human-animal bond context” (Borgi, Cogliati-Dezza, Brelsford, Meints, and Cirulli, 2004).

Another point that connects cuteness to ethical experience is this: the absence of a cuteness response is associated with what we call evil, or malignant aggression. There’s a scene in Shakespeare’s Richard III where Tyrell has had his henchmen kill his own nephews, the little Richard, Duke of York and Edward V, in order to clear his own way to the crown. Tyrell reports that the hired killers Dighton and Forrest,

Albeit they were fleshed villains, bloody dogs,

Melted with tenderness and mild compassion [6]

when they saw the young victims. Meanwhile, Richard himself is completely unaffected by Tyrell’s emotion, inviting him to “tell the process of their death” after dinner, and says he’ll go to Elizabeth “a jolly, thriving wooer.” Clearly, Shakespeare is painting Richard as the worst kind of villain, inducing in the audience with just these few lines horror and disgust (both aesthetic phenomena of  great evolutionary importance), not just for his murder of the the princes in the tower, but for his complete lack of compassion or remorse for the little ones. This horror and disgust against an attacker accompany the special instinct to protect the young that’s associated with the cuteness response.

Let’s now consider a human who only regards young humans of his or her own ethnic group to be cute, in other words, for whom the care-giving response is restricted to members of his or her own phylogenetic in-group. This indicates the particular form of evil called racism, articulated along the lines of kin-selection. This helps us apply evolutionary aesthetics to the problem of racism by filling in the role of aesthetic responses in the phenomenon of kin selection.

So, all in all, it looks like cuteness is far more important that it’s been given credit for, and worthy of further studies that tie it to the theory of moral sentiments, emotivism, animal rights, the problem of evil, the biological psychology of racism, and other ethical issues to which evolutionary aesthetics is relevant.

Works Cited

[1] M. J. Peltola, , S. Yrttiaho, K. Puura, A. M. Proverbio, N. Mononen, T. Lehtimäki, & J.M. Leppänen, “Motherhood and Oxytocin Receptor Genetic Variation are Associated with Selective Changes in Electrocortical Responses to Infant Facial Expressions” in Emotion No. 14, pp. 469–477 (2014).  doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035959

[2] N. L. McElwain & C. Booth-LaForce, “Maternal Sensitivity to Infant Distress and Nondistress as Predictors of Infant–Mother Attachment Security” in Journal of Family Psychology No. 20, pp. 247–255 (2006). doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-3200.20.2.247

[3] M. J. Peltola, S. Yrttiaho, K. Puura, A.M. Proverbio, N. Mononen, T. Lehtimäki, & J.M. Leppänen, “Motherhood and Oxytocin Receptor Genetic Variation are Associated with Selective Changes in Electrocortical Responses to Infant Facial Expressions.” in Emotion No. 14 (2014) pp. 469–477. doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035959

[4] M. Borgi, I. Cogliati-Dezza, V. Brelsford, K. Meints & F. Cirulli, “Baby Schema in Human and Animal Faces Induces Cuteness Perception and Gaze Allocation in Children” in Frontiers in Psychology No. 7 (2014). doi: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00411/full

[5] Ana Luisa Emauz Leite Ribeiro, “Is Empathy Consistent across Species? Exploring Factors that may Explain Convergence/Divergence” Dissertation, ISCTE – Instituto Universitario de Lisboa (Portugal). ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017. doi: https://www.proquest.com/openview/25ca2c4da83bcaa89ef68ef9b3612829/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=2026366

[6] William Shakespeare, Richard III Act IV, Scene 3. doi: https://gutenberg.org/ebooks/1503

About the Author:

P. Winston Fettner earned an M.A. in philosophy from Villanova University, and studied under Joseph Margolis, the pragmatist philosopher of art, at Temple University. He now lives in Athens, Greece.

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