Babies don't just look cute, scientists find

Credit: axelle b/public domain

What is it about the sight of an infant that makes almost everyone crack a smile? Big eyes, chubby cheeks, and a button nose? An infectious laugh, soft skin, and a captivating smell? While we have long known that babies look cute, Oxford University researchers have found that cuteness is designed to appeal to all our senses.

They explain that all these characteristics contribute to 'cuteness' and trigger our caregiving behaviours, which is vital because infants need our constant attention to survive and thrive. The study is published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Morten Kringelbach, who together with Eloise Stark, Catherine Alexander, Professor Marc Bornstein and Professor Alan Stein, led the work in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford, said: 'Infants attract us through all our senses, which helps make cuteness one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behaviour.'

Reviewing the emerging literature on how cute infants and animals affect the brain, the Oxford University team found that cuteness supports key parental capacities by igniting fast privileged neural activity followed by slower processing in large brain networks also involved in play, empathy, and perhaps even higher-order moral emotions.

The data shows that definitions of cuteness should not be limited just to visual features but include positive infant sounds and smells. From an evolutionary standpoint, cuteness is a very potent protective mechanism that ensures survival for otherwise completely dependent infants.

Professor Kringelbach said: 'This is the first evidence of its kind to show that cuteness helps infants to survive by eliciting caregiving, which cannot be reduced to simple, instinctual behaviours. Instead, caregiving involves a complex choreography of slow, careful, deliberate, and long-lasting prosocial behaviours, which ignite fundamental brain pleasure systems that are also engaged when eating food or listening to music, and always involve pleasant experiences.'

The study shows that affects both men and women, even those without children.

'This might be a fundamental response present in everyone, regardless of parental status or gender, and we are currently conducting the first long-term study of what happens to brain responses when we become parents.' said Kringelbach.

Explore further

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More information: Morten L. Kringelbach et al, On Cuteness: Unlocking the Parental Brain and Beyond, Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.05.003
Journal information: Trends in Cognitive Sciences

Citation: Babies don't just look cute, scientists find (2016, June 6) retrieved 22 September 2019 from
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Jun 06, 2016
Professor Kringelbach said: This is the first evidence of its kind to show that cuteness helps infants to survive by eliciting caregiving, which cannot be reduced to simple, instinctual behaviours.
Then he tries to say Cuteness makes people deliberately want to do good for the kid, as opposed to instinctual behavior. But then he goes on:
This might be a fundamental response present in everyone
This, in my book, at least, constitutes instinctive behavior.

Maybe Professor Kringelbach should clarify to himself the very notion of instinctive behavior.

Then, maybe in 20 years, he does The First study Ever that finds people find Kittens cuter than human babies, which really are hairless blobs of pink fat who cry and poop and just lie there. (Even the 'net is full of kittens, not unknown babies.)

20 years more, and it suddenly dawns upon him, that our babies have looked like bald blobs for 2 My but like kittens for 160 My.

Now there's evolution of instinct for you.

Jun 06, 2016

It is amazing that in a mere 2 million years (since our babies started to grow bald), the triggers of our caregiving instinct have started to include bald babies.

It seems the triggers have not changed, but new triggers have been added, since we still adore kittens. But then, the evolutionary pressure has of course been strong: ignore your baby and your lineage simply dies out.

Jun 06, 2016
Earth shattering results; the definition of meaning and needless research, cudos for demonstrating that. That part of Oxford can be closed.

In the real world babies look downright ugly most of the time and sounds and smell like shit (literally).

Jun 06, 2016
Yeah, I agree with what everyone says. But when its Your Baby, you WILL have different opinion. I am not a fan of Other Peoples Kids. But mine are the most precious thing in the world. That is Instinct. I swear they will study any damn thing these days. Why do people like cute babies? Cuz if they didn't we would all die. Duh. Give me a PHD now.

Jun 07, 2016
Patrick McManus, humorist and non-scientist, figured this out a decade ago. From "The Bear In the Attic" (2002):

...this is probably something you don't know, but cute is nature's device for preserving its young. It doesn't just apply to animals either. Many a dumb and useless human being has survived and prospered for no other reason than the good luck of being cute.

Good to see Oxford is finally catching up to McManus.

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