Have you ever found yourself wandering the kitchen supplies section and gravitating toward exceptionally small whisks or spatulas, wondering how anyone could possibly find a use for them—and yet, feeling strangely compelled to buy them? Or maybe you don't consider yourself a "baby person," but find yourself letting out an involuntary squeal upon holding your friend's child for the first time and noticing its tiny fingers and toes? If so, you—like many other people on this planet—have been on the receiving end of the effects of cuteness psychology.
The "psychology of cuteness" might sound made up, but it has roots in research going back more than 70 years. Here's what to know about the science of cuteness and why tiny objects—both natural and artificial—have the ability to make us happy and comforted.
The Origins of Cuteness Psychology
Even if you don't recognize his name, you're probably familiar with the work of Konrad Lorenz, a German ethologist who introduced the concept of the baby schema ("Kindchenschema") in 1943. The "baby schema" is the theory that certain physical features that are typically associated with babies—like a round face and big eyes—are so irresistibly cute to humans they will prompt us to not only feel delight, but actually desire to take care of someone or something.
"The psychology of cuteness is the idea that we find things cute that require parental care," Amanda Levison, a licensed professional counselor from Neurofeedback and Counseling Center in Harrisburg, Penn., tells Real Simple. "This happens to elicit a response out of us to take care of the babies or baby animals that need to be taken care of. Seeing something small and cute stimulates bonding behaviors and the need to take care of it and protect it."
And while this tidy evolutionary explanation makes sense, our attraction to small objects isn't entirely a result of a primitive desire to act as a parent and/or do our part to propagate the species. In fact, more recent research has indicated that our reaction to cuteness isn't necessarily directly related to some sort of instinctual need to nurture, but rather more of a general, positive feeling that can influence how we socially interact with other people. Here are some of the ways that can play out.
Our hormones are at it again.
Part of the whole helpless-but-irresistible, big-eyed baby narrative is that seeing these adorable tiny humans or animals releases oxytocin—aka the “love hormone”—which is involved with forming emotional bonds, explains Varun Choudhary, MD, a board-certified forensic psychiatrist. But again, this goes beyond laughing babies and yawning puppies, and also applies to our affection for all things tiny. When the body releases oxytocin, this “makes us feel in love with the object we are attracted to,” says Pareen Sehat, MC, RCC, a registered clinical counselor and certified mental health professional practicing in Vancouver, Canada.
Oxytocin is not the only hormone involved. “Dopamine is one of the most important hormones that triggers happiness and any positive emotional response,” Sehat says. “Whenever we see tiny things we find cute and attractive, our brain releases dopamine and makes us feel happy.”
This is another example of evolutionary biology at work, according to Sam Von Reiche, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Paramus, N.J., and the author of Rethink Your Shrink: The Best Alternatives to Talk Therapy and Meds, “The human brain is designed to love cute, small things by rewarding us with a shot of dopamine—which makes us feel very happy—whenever we behold them, to help guarantee we will be drawn to our tiny babies and want to take care of and protect them,” Von Reiche say. “This ensures their survival and, in turn, the survival of our species.”
Small things bring back the comforts of childhood.
There’s a reason why we were all turning to the music, movies, and TV shows of our youth during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic: Nostalgia can be a great source of comfort. But it doesn’t require a global crisis for us to be drawn to objects that remind us of childhood. “People may experience different emotions to an object depending on the imprinted emotions that may be attached to a memory,” Dr. Choudhary says. “For example, a young child receives a Mickey Mouse watch from her parents and later associates tiny Mickey Mouse figurines with a sense of comfort and security.”
By the time we’re adults, we have decades of experience forming strong emotional attachments with external objects, something Dr. Choudhary says is part of our neurodevelopmental process. “Psychoanalysts call them ‘transitional objects’ because they are a source of security while we process and understand our world,” he explains, noting that these items are usually small, like a doll, blanket, or ball. But, as we’ve learned from the plot of every Toy Story movie, there comes a point when children outgrow their playthings. “As we grow older, this need to find external security diminishes as our internal world becomes more prominent,” Dr. Choudhary continues.
While this makes sense, so does the idea that in times of stress, we return to things that gave us comfort at an early age. And it doesn’t need to be the exact same teddy bear or toy we played with as a child—or even a toy at all. It could be a miniature version of an item. “Subconsciously, we positively associate tiny objects with the security and comfort they brought us in an earlier time in our lives,” he says.
We experience awe and wonder.
Our brains are often drawn to the unique and unusual. “Miniatures—tiny objects—draw our attention because they are extraordinary; the mind knows that the object is highly unusual as to size while being familiar as to design,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, Calif. “Thus, the mind finds the tiny object appealing—cute and adorable—as it evokes a sense of normalcy and oddity at the same time.”
There’s also what Gail Saltz, MD, a psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, refers to as the “awe factor,” or wondering how in the world something that’s usually so big can be made in such a small size. “Seeing a marvel or feat that reminds us how amazing, talented, creative people are makes us feel good,” she says. “Seeing something that makes us use our imagination, and is so original [that] it gives us pleasure can, like art, [be] a creative wonder.”
They're nice and nonthreatening.
As humans, we like to feel a sense of control over at least some aspects of our lives (even though, in reality, we don’t really). This is another part of the appeal of diminutive items, according to Brian Wind, PhD, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University, who explains that our fascination with the teeny “could also be linked to the fact that often we have a greater sense of control and power over smaller things.”
Along the same lines, Levison points out that we’re drawn to “their helplessness [and] inability to pose a threat to us.” So not only do tiny things make us feel safer because we don’t find them threatening, they can also give us the confidence boost that comes with feeling in control or dominant (even if that feeling is triggered by one of those airplane-sized bottles of Tabasco sauce).
They’re symbolic stand-ins for the real thing.
On another level, some people may gravitate towards miniatures because they don’t have the money or access required to obtain the real-life versions. “While we might not be able to obtain certain items such as a live owl, an expensive race car, or a giant statue, a miniature copy can offer incredible emotional rewards,” Manly explains.
This is also one of the reasons people purchase and then gift or collect cheesy souvenirs when they’re out of town. “Certain tiny objects from one’s travels—for example, a tiny Eiffel Tower—can bring a sense of connection to important life events and the people who have shared our journey,” she adds. “Depending on one’s inner needs and attachment to a certain item, a miniature object can bring a sense of pleasure, satisfaction, and even emotional relief.”