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The Evolution of Aww

Zooey Deschanel (Dimitrios Kambouris, Getty Images)

We live in the golden age of cute. As one scholar recently put it, cuteness has become a “dominant aesthetic category in digital culture.” Hard to argue with that. Even if you steer clear of toddler pics on Facebook, even if you’ve never clicked on Reddit’s popular “aww” category, your elderly former neighbor will still email you a random photo of, say, three adorable piglets peeking out of a coffee mug.

That last one may be specific to me, but the point stands.

What is there to say about this tsunami of snuggling puppies? What do the giggling quadruplets mean? How do you make sense of all those damn kittens?

The recent academic literature on cuteness offers some guidance. A new paper titled “Isn’t She Adorkable! Cuteness as Political Neutralization in the Star Text of Zooey Deschanel” attempts to dissect the quirky allure of the actress and musician. She plays the ukulele, which is like a cuter, smaller guitar. She bakes cupcakes, which are like cuter, smaller cakes. Her clothes are often faux frumpy. And then there are those doll-like eyes that, according to the author, evoke a comforting cuteness that’s particularly appealing in times of distress:

Deschanel’s image reinforces such hegemonic ideals of beauty central to postfeminist culture, with its evocation of whiteness, youth, and heteronormative desire, a cultural trend further exacerbated by the nostalgic turn witnessed since the 2008 recession.

I’m not sure Zooey Deschanel made me feel better about my house losing half its value, but who knows? She is pretty cute.

Psychologists are working to figure out the evolutionary roots of cuteness. The prevailing theory is that we find babies cute because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t put up with their early, annoying stages, and our species would perish from the earth. Cuteness saves lives. That idea is usually credited to Konrad Lorenz, the father of cuteness studies, who proposed way back in 1943 that the “baby schema” of big eyes and round heads motivates us to care for infants. Lorenz’s notion is sometimes called the “the kewpie doll effect” and recent experimental research seems to back it up.

One study, for instance, found that some subjects became more physically careful when carrying out a task after they had been primed by photos of cute babies. Not all subjects, though—just women who had previously tested as feeling generally benevolent toward others.

That said, cuteness isn’t as straightforward as it seems. In a 2013 study, researchers explored the relationship between a baby’s cuteness and its annoying-ness. First they asked adults to rate the cuteness of a series of baby photos. After that they gave the subjects information about the temperaments of those babies, whether they were fussy or generally content. Then the subjects rated them again. The unhappy babies were now considered less cute than before, while the happy babies increased their cuteness quotient.

Cuteness may trigger more than basic parental instincts. A 2011 paper by Gary Sherman and Jonathan Haidt proposes that cuteness primarily leads to social engagement and play. Yes, cuteness prompts us to take care of children, but that may be an indirect result of social engagement, and it’s better understood, they contend, in this broader context. Cuteness, they write, is “as likely to trigger a childlike state as a parental one.”

And it goes beyond babies. Cuteness can be manipulated for commercial purposes. Researchers altered photographs of cars to make them more babylike, which mainly meant making the headlights ever-so-slightly larger on the theory that we process the “face” of a car the same way we process the face of a human being. Sure enough, people were drawn to the more babylike cars, causing the authors to wonder whether “marketers’ and designers’ assumptions on the visual features which attract consumers’ emotions may have been based rather intuitively on such evolutionary principles.”

We want to cuddle Mini Coopers as much as drive them.

Maybe the upshot is that cuteness is weirdly powerful, even a little dangerous. It plays on deep, evolutionary instincts in ways that we don’t fully understand. It can be used to persuade us to click a link or buy a car or who knows what else. And it can cause us to fall under the spell of cupcake-baking, ukulele-frailing actresses with doll-like eyes. We’re on to you, Zooey.

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