[Paleopsych] NYT: The Cute Factor
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Wed Jan 11 16:16:07 UTC 2006
The Cute Factor
By NATALIE ANGIER
WASHINGTON, Jan. 2 - If the mere sight of Tai Shan, the roly-poly,
goofily gamboling masked bandit of a panda cub now on view at the
National Zoo isn't enough to make you melt, then maybe the crush of
his human onlookers, the furious flashing of their cameras and the
heated gasps of their mass rapture will do the trick.
"Omigosh, look at him! He is too cute!"
"How adorable! I wish I could just reach in there and give him a big
"He's so fuzzy! I've never seen anything so cute in my life!"
A guard's sonorous voice rises above the burble. "OK, folks, five oohs
and aahs per person, then it's time to let someone else step up
The 6-month-old, 25-pound Tai Shan - whose name is pronounced tie-SHON
and means, for no obvious reason, "peaceful mountain" - is the first
surviving giant panda cub ever born at the Smithsonian's zoo. And
though the zoo's adult pandas have long been among Washington's top
tourist attractions, the public debut of the baby in December has
unleashed an almost bestial frenzy here. Some 13,000 timed tickets to
see the cub were snapped up within two hours of being released, and
almost immediately began trading on eBay for up to $200 a pair.
Panda mania is not the only reason that 2005 proved an exceptionally
cute year. Last summer, a movie about another black-and-white charmer,
the emperor penguin, became one of the highest-grossing documentaries
of all time. Sales of petite, willfully cute cars like the Toyota
Prius and the Mini Cooper soared, while those of noncute sport utility
Women's fashions opted for the cute over the sensible or glamorous,
with low-slung slacks and skirts and abbreviated blouses contriving to
present a customer's midriff as an adorable preschool bulge. Even the
too big could be too cute. King Kong's newly reissued face has a
squashed baby-doll appeal, and his passion for Naomi Watts ultimately
feels like a serious case of puppy love - hopeless, heartbreaking,
Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified
a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that
make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big
round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side,
teeter-totter gait, among many others.
Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability,
harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely
makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so
pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without
adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and
gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.
The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers
said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely
resembling a human baby or a part thereof, and so ends up including
the young of virtually every mammalian species, fuzzy-headed birds
like Japanese cranes, woolly bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, a
big round rock stacked on a smaller rock, a colon, a hyphen and a
close parenthesis typed in succession.
The greater the number of cute cues that an animal or object happens
to possess, or the more exaggerated the signals may be, the louder and
more italicized are the squeals provoked.
Cuteness is distinct from beauty, researchers say, emphasizing rounded
over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Beauty attracts
admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and
demands a lap. Beauty is rare and brutal, despoiled by a single
pimple. Cuteness is commonplace and generous, content on occasion to
cosegregate with homeliness.
Observing that many Floridians have an enormous affection for the
manatee, which looks like an overfertilized potato with a sock
puppet's face, Roger L. Reep of the University of Florida said it
shone by grace of contrast. "People live hectic lives, and they may be
feeling overwhelmed, but then they watch this soft and slow-moving
animal, this gentle giant, and they see it turn on its back to get its
belly scratched," said Dr. Reep, author with Robert K. Bonde of "The
Florida Manatee: Biology and Conservation."
"That's very endearing," said Dr. Reep. "So even though a manatee is 3
times your size and 20 times your weight, you want to get into the
water beside it."
Even as they say a cute tooth has rational roots, scientists admit
they are just beginning to map its subtleties and source. New studies
suggest that cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the
brain aroused by sex, a good meal or psychoactive drugs like cocaine,
which could explain why everybody in the panda house wore a big grin.
At the same time, said Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art at the
University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the rapidity and promiscuity
of the cute response makes the impulse suspect, readily overridden by
the angry sense that one is being exploited or deceived.
"Cute cuts through all layers of meaning and says, Let's not worry
about complexities, just love me," said Dr. Dutton, who is writing a
book about Darwinian aesthetics. "That's where the sense of cheapness
can come from, and the feeling of being manipulated or taken for a
sucker that leads many to reject cuteness as low or shallow."
Quick and cheap make cute appealing to those who want to catch the eye
and please the crowd. Advertisers and product designers are forever
toying with cute cues to lend their merchandise instant appeal, mixing
and monkeying with the vocabulary of cute to keep the message fresh
That market-driven exercise in cultural evolution can yield bizarre if
endearing results, like the blatantly ugly Cabbage Patch dolls,
Furbies, the figgy face of E.T., the froggy one of Yoda. As though the
original Volkswagen Beetle wasn't considered cute enough, the updated
edition was made rounder and shinier still.
"The new Beetle looks like a smiley face," said Miles Orvell,
professor of American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia.
"By this point its origins in Hitler's regime, and its intended
resemblance to a German helmet, is totally forgotten."
Whatever needs pitching, cute can help. A recent study at the Veterans
Affairs Medical Center at the University of Michigan showed that high
school students were far more likely to believe antismoking messages
accompanied by cute cartoon characters like a penguin in a red jacket
or a smirking polar bear than when the warnings were delivered
"It made a huge difference," said Sonia A. Duffy, the lead author of
the report, which was published in The Archives of Pediatrics and
Adolescent Medicine. "The kids expressed more confidence in the
cartoons than in the warnings themselves."
Primal and widespread though the taste for cute may be, researchers
say it varies in strength and significance across cultures and eras.
They compare the cute response to the love of sugar: everybody has
sweetness receptors on the tongue, but some people, and some
countries, eat a lot more candy than others.
Experts point out that the cuteness craze is particularly acute in
Japan, where it goes by the name "kawaii" and has infiltrated the most
masculine of redoubts. Truck drivers display Hello Kitty-style
figurines on their dashboards. The police enliven safety billboards
and wanted posters with two perky mouselike mascots, Pipo kun and Pipo
Behind the kawaii phenomenon, according to Brian J. McVeigh, a scholar
of East Asian studies at the University of Arizona, is the strongly
hierarchical nature of Japanese culture. "Cuteness is used to soften
up the vertical society," he said, "to soften power relations and
present authority without being threatening."
In this country, the use of cute imagery is geared less toward
blurring the line of command than toward celebrating America's
favorite demographic: the young. Dr. Orvell traces contemporary cute
chic to the 1960's, with its celebration of a perennial childhood, a
refusal to dress in adult clothes, an inversion of adult values, a
love of bright colors and bloopy, cartoony patterns, the Lava Lamp.
Today, it's not enough for a company to use cute graphics in its
advertisements. It must have a really cute name as well. "Companies
like Google and Yahoo leave no question in your mind about the
youthfulness of their founders," said Dr. Orvell.
Madison Avenue may adapt its strategies for maximal tweaking of our
inherent baby radar, but babies themselves, evolutionary scientists
say, did not really evolve to be cute. Instead, most of their salient
qualities stem from the demands of human anatomy and the human brain,
and became appealing to a potential caretaker's eye only because
infants wouldn't survive otherwise.
Human babies have unusually large heads because humans have unusually
large brains. Their heads are round because their brains continue to
grow throughout the first months of life, and the plates of the skull
stay flexible and unfused to accommodate the development. Baby eyes
and ears are situated comparatively far down the face and skull, and
only later migrate upward in proportion to the development of bones in
the cheek and jaw areas.
Baby eyes are also notably forward-facing, the binocular vision a
likely legacy of our tree-dwelling ancestry, and all our favorite
Disney characters also sport forward-facing eyes, including the ducks
and mice, species that in reality have eyes on the sides of their
The cartilage tissue in an infant's nose is comparatively soft and
undeveloped, which is why most babies have button noses. Baby skin
sits relatively loose on the body, rather than being taut, the better
to stretch for growth spurts to come, said Paul H. Morris, an
evolutionary scientist at the University of Portsmouth in England;
that lax packaging accentuates the overall roundness of form.
Baby movements are notably clumsy, an amusing combination of jerky and
delayed, because learning to coordinate the body's many bilateral sets
of large and fine muscle groups requires years of practice. On
starting to walk, toddlers struggle continuously to balance themselves
between left foot and right, and so the toddler gait consists as much
of lateral movement as of any forward momentum.
Researchers who study animals beloved by the public appreciate the
human impulse to nurture anything even remotely babylike, though they
are at times taken aback by people's efforts to identify with their
Take penguins as an example. Some people are so wild for the
creatures, said Michel Gauthier-Clerc, a penguin researcher in Arles,
France, "they think penguins are mammals and not birds." They love the
penguin's upright posture, its funny little tuxedo, the way it waddles
as it walks. How like a child playing dress-up!
Endearing as it is, Dr. Gauthier-Clerc explained that the apparent
awkwardness of the penguin's march had nothing to do with clumsiness
or uncertain balance. Instead, he said, penguins waddle to save
energy. A side-to-side walk burns fewer calories than a
straightforward stride, and for birds that fast for months and live in
a frigid climate, every calorie counts.
As for the penguin's maestro garb, the white front and black jacket
suits its aquatic way of life. While submerged in water, the penguin's
dark backside is difficult to see from above, camouflaging the penguin
from potential predators of air or land. The white chest, by contrast,
obscures it from below, protecting it against carnivores and allowing
it to better sneak up on fish prey.
The giant panda offers another case study in accidental cuteness.
Although it is a member of the bear family, a highly carnivorous clan,
the giant panda specializes in eating bamboo.
As it happens, many of the adaptations that allow it to get by on such
a tough diet contribute to the panda's cute form, even in adulthood.
Inside the bear's large, rounded head, said Lisa Stevens, assistant
panda curator at the National Zoo, are the highly developed jaw
muscles and the set of broad, grinding molars it needs to crush its
way through some 40 pounds of fibrous bamboo plant a day.
When it sits up against a tree and starts picking apart a bamboo stalk
with its distinguishing pseudo-thumb, a panda looks like nothing so
much like Huckleberry Finn shucking corn. Yet the humanesque posture
and paws again are adaptations to its menu. The bear must have its
"hands" free and able to shred the bamboo leaves from their stalks.
The panda's distinctive markings further add to its appeal: the black
patches around the eyes make them seem winsomely low on its face,
while the black ears pop out cutely against the white fur of its
As with the penguin's tuxedo, the panda's two-toned coat very likely
serves a twofold purpose. On the one hand, it helps a feeding bear
blend peacefully into the dappled backdrop of bamboo. On the other,
the sharp contrast between light and dark may serve as a social
signal, helping the solitary bears locate each other when the time has
come to find the perfect, too-cute mate.
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