So cuteness can be animate or inanimate. The distinction might seem trivial on the surface, but recent evidence suggests our brains appreciate it—and prompt us to behave in different ways as a result. Baby cuteness triggers thoughts of vulnerability and protection that lead to careful actions. So-called “whimsical cuteness,” on the other hand, sparks ideas of playfulness and self-reward that make us indulge.
“There are two dimensions of cuteness: the baby cuteness versus this whimsical cuteness,” Gergana Nenkov, a marketing scholar at Boston College, tells Co.Design. “They have very different associations.”
Baby cuteness—behavioral scientists call it kindchenschema—centers on the irresistible features of tinyhood: the bulging forehead, the big eyes, the puffy cheeks. Studies routinely find that people who see images of baby cuteness feel intense and measurable desires to protect the lil’uns (including puppies and kittens). In this heightened caregiving state, people even display better fine motor skills than they do under normal circumstances.