Tim Perper has reminded me that cuteness has been of scientific interest ever since Konrad Lorenz defined the “infant schema” in the 1940s. The notion is that it is very important for animals to distinguish between adults and juveniles, as juveniles require different treatment from adults, so juveniles look distinctly different.
As recounted by Wolfgang Wickler in chapter 31 of The Sexual Code (1973, p. 256) the schema includes these features:
1. A comparatively thick head;
2. A prominent cranium with a domed brow out of proportion to the face;
3. A large correspondingly disproportionate eye situated as low or below the middle of the entire skull;
4. Comparatively short, thick limbs with pudgy hands and feat;
5. Rounded body forms in general;
6. A very specific, soft, and elastic surface texture;
7. Round, prominent, “chubby” cheeks.
Surface texture and thickness of limbs aside, that’s Tweety Bird, among many other cartoon characters.
But is it “real”? In particular, do we have any evidence that humans are sensitive to and respond differentially to it? The answer is “yes.” Wickler reported some research in his 1973 book, and more has been done since then. I’ve appended abstracts of two recent articles. As far as I know, however, no one has tested people’s response to cartoons, so we don’t really know whether this notion tells us anything about all those rounded heads, big eyes, and rounded bodies.
But let us assume it does. Let’s go the EP route for a moment and assume that there’s a perceptual minimodule that’s triggered by the infant schema in the way that male sticklebacks will attack things that are red, and that we can’t shut this minimodule down. If the appropriate stimuli are there, we respond, though we can override that innate response. What’s the point of asking us to see these various characters as some variety of infant?
Are we being asked to think that they ARE, in fact, infants? Is Tweety Bird an infant? No. Tweety Bird may live in a cage—though not always—and may need care an attention. But Tweety is not an infant. And, though Tweety is constantly threatened a large cat, Tweety is not helpless. Here, for example, is Tweety helping that cat get loose from some wires:
The cat is looking a bit apprehensive about this help.
To be sure, some of these big-headed round-eyed characters are infants and more or less helpless—Dumbo is a good example. But that’s not generally the case. Whatever a cartoon is doing with or through the infant schema, it’s generally not asking us to think of the character as an infant.
What, then, is going on?
My best guess is that the effect is to license, to legitimize, non-standard behavior enacted by these characters. The infant schema evokes care-giving attitudes in the audience. In reality, infants are given license to do all sorts of things forbidden to older children, much less to adults. In manga and anime, teens and even adults are given such license; those high foreheads, diminished noses, and big eyes signal the readers and audience: “Cut me some slack, I’m experimenting, trying new things. Care for me. Care about me.”
As for just why cartoons do THAT, that’s more than I want to take on in this post.
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Hiroshi Nittono, Michiko Fukushima, Akihiro Yano, Hiroki Moriya (2012)
PLoS ONE 7(9): e46362. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046362
ABSTRACT: Kawaii (a Japanese word meaning “cute”) things are popular because they produce positive feelings. However, their effect on behavior remains unclear. In this study, three experiments were conducted to examine the effects of viewing cute images on subsequent task performance. In the first experiment, university students performed a fine motor dexterity task before and after viewing images of baby or adult animals. Performance indexed by the number of successful trials increased after viewing cute images (puppies and kittens; M ± SE = 43.9±10.3% improvement) more than after viewing images that were less cute (dogs and cats; 11.9±5.5% improvement). In the second experiment, this finding was replicated by using a non-motor visual search task. Performance improved more after viewing cute images (15.7±2.2% improvement) than after viewing less cute images (1.4±2.1% improvement). Viewing images of pleasant foods was ineffective in improving performance (1.2±2.1%). In the third experiment, participants performed a global–local letter task after viewing images of baby animals, adult animals, and neutral objects. In general, global features were processed faster than local features. However, this global precedence effect was reduced after viewing cute images. Results show that participants performed tasks requiring focused attention more carefully after viewing cute images. This is interpreted as the result of a narrowed attentional focus induced by the cuteness-triggered positive emotion that is associated with approach motivation and the tendency toward systematic processing. For future applications, cute objects may be used as an emotion elicitor to induce careful behavioral tendencies in specific situations, such as driving and office work.
John Archer, Soraya Monton
Article first published online: 16 DEC 2010
Volume 117, Issue 3, pages 217–226, March 2011
ABSTRACT: A set of infant features (large forehead, large and low-lying eyes, and bulging cheeks), were described in classical ethology as social releasers, simple stimuli that evoke a stereotyped response, in this case nurturing. We assessed the attractiveness of such features in the faces of dogs or cats (adults and young) or teddy bears or human infants, and also related these preferences to the degree of attachment to a pet. Overall, faces with the infant features were rated as more attractive than those without. Human infant faces were no more attractive than those of kittens or puppies. Pet faces were rated as more attractive by pet owners than non-pet owners, regardless of whether the faces had infant features. A preference was also found for infant features in teddy bear faces. Women showed higher ratings than men for pets with infant features, but not for human infants or pets without infant features. Parents found human infants’ faces more attractive than did non-parents, but there were no differences for other faces with infant features. Preferences were to some extent specific to the participant’s preferred pet species. Owners who were more strongly attached to their pets showed stronger preferences for photographs with infant features. The findings are discussed in terms of the concept of social releaser, and its part in the development of attachment to a pet species.