December 28, 2008

Cute, Technically

One of the highlights of my Christmas was getting to see my little cousins (they're actually young enough to be my nieces and nephews and are technically my step-cousins, but that's beyond the point). It's impossible to look at them and not love them. They just light up the room.

This got me thinking: what is it about kids that make them so cute? I remembered from my M.Ed. courses that this has been studied scientifically. Indeed, "cuteness" can actually be predicted and measured based on the following traits (pdf):

  • Small body size with a disproportionately large head

  • Large eyes

  • A pleasantly fair, though not necessarily small nose

  • Dimples

  • Round and softer body features

  • Playfulness

  • Fragility

  • Helplessness

  • Curiosity

  • Innocense

  • Affectionate behavior

That makes sense. The kids in my family whom everyone thinks are so cute have all of these traits. Paul Graham has argued that cuteness in children has many advantages:

It's not surprising we'd have an inborn desire to love and protect helpless creatures, considering human offspring are so helpless for so long. Without the helplessness that makes kids cute, they'd be very annoying. They'd merely seem like incompetent adults.

From Wikipedia:

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, shorted noses, etc – than to animals that do not.

Does this seem like circular logic to you? Lorenz is saying this: the reason kids are cute is that they possess traits which we find cute. Although that thing about the animals is interesting.
OK, so this post is only tangentially related to teaching. It's more of an excuse for me to be that annoying guy who just talks about his own family and brag about how cute they are. It doesn't have anything to do with my job at all, since the students have grown from cute and innocent kids to ungainly and awkward teenagers by the time I see them at the high school (although one could argue that they do have disproportionately large heads. Ha ha). But we're all in the business of working with kids and this might change the way you see "cuteness".

Cute kids usually trigger an affectionate emotional response in adults. Looking at cuteness scientifically gives you a totally different perspective. It's a simple cause-effect relationship. If an organism possesses "cute" traits, the adult will respond positively because we're biologically hard-wired to do so. There's really nothing magical about it. "Cute" is a survival mechanism. (Except MY little cousins really ARE cute! Sorry.)

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