Puffy-cheeked babies, wide-eyed puppies and staggering kittens: we know cute when we see him. However, we are still learning what it does to our brains and behavior.mOnce thought to elicit a programmed, primarily maternal, nurturing response, researchers are now learning that cuteness actually triggers unique brain activity — in women and men — that goes beyond making sure Junior wants nothing. Marketers and product designers have known for decades that attractiveness sells, but a number of recent studies show that it’s less about caring and more about empathy, community, and sharing. In fact, understanding what attraction is and how it affects us can help us use its power for good.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the science of attractiveness begins with the Nazis. In the 1930s, Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz became famous for studying animal behavior to explain why people do what we do. Lorentz eventually won the Nobel Prize for his work and his influence in this area was enormous. Virtually every academic study of cuteness refers to his idea of kindchenschema, or “baby schema”: babies of many mammalian species have a set of features, such as a large head, large eyes, and a small nose, that elicit a caring response.
Lorenz suggested that the Kindchenschema triggers biologically built-in rather than learned behavior. This type of rapid, programmed response to a stimulus, known as the innate release mechanism, means that people will seek to care for and protect an infant, even if they have never seen a baby before. And it’s not just young members of our species that cause such a reaction; other species with kindhenschema traits may also make us care for them.