Kawaii, Kama Muta, And The Phenomenon Of Cute Aggression
We've all had the urge to hug, pinch and squeeze things that are cute. Science tells us why.
By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | October 26, 2023
In 1943, ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed the concept of “Kindchenschema” or “baby schema”—a set of physical attributes that humans find cute. These features are the reason why we experience overwhelming feelings of warmth, love and joy when looking at something cute. These include round cheeks, big eyes, a high forehead, a small chin and a small nose.
Upon encountering this “baby schema” in any form, be it an animal or an object, a natural, evolutionary urge is triggered within us to interact with it as we would with human infants, which partly explains the our love for “fur babies.” Recent research has revealed how and why cuteness exerts such a powerful influence over us.
Here are two primary reasons we fawn over the cute.
1. Cuteness Sets Off An Emotional Overload
A 2019 study found that viewing baby schema evokes an emotional response in us called “kama muta”—a Sanskrit term which refers to being moved or touched by love and feeling warm, nostalgic and even patriotic. The researchers suggest that the kama muta response occurs especially when “cute beings” are being affectionate, which humanizes them and makes them endearing.
Research also shows that looking at something cute creates complex and often contradictory emotions within us. Researchers suggest that we exhibit “dimorphous expressions” of emotions when exposed to something extremely cute, referring to a seemingly negative reaction to a positive emotion, such as wanting to cry or scream when happy.
Since cute things create intense positive emotions within us, it can sometimes lead to experiencing a lack of control or restlessness without it being a negative experience.
2. Cuteness Elicits Strong Behavioral Reactions
A 2012 study describing power of “kawaii” (the Japanese word for “cute”) found that viewing cute images of baby animals such as puppies and kittens could improve subsequent task performance in areas requiring focused attention.
In other words, finding something cute creates positive emotion and heightened focus, which makes us act carefully, engaging in logical and deliberate thinking and decision-making when necessary.
A second behavioral effect which many individuals experience is “cute aggression.” While this does not cause us to actually harm something cute, it does induce overwhelmingly positive feelings upon seeing it. This phenomenon often manifests in physical reactions such as gritted teeth, higher-pitched voices and the urge to squeeze, bite or pinch the cute being.
The researchers who coined the term in a 2015 study found a neurological basis for this response, explaining that it is likely the brain's method of managing or releasing the intense feelings of excitement and happiness we are experiencing.
A study in 2018 highlighted how cute aggression accompanied the reward response in the brain and suggested that by allowing individuals to safely channel built-up positive emotional energy, cute aggression enhances our caregiving abilities, making us more attentive to beings such as vulnerable infants who cannot care for themselves.
The perception of cuteness creates an instinctual drive to safeguard, nurture and maintain proximity to the cute subject and this response is deeply rooted in our biology. For instance, parents are biologically wired to experience intense positive emotions for their offspring, ensuring their survival and well-being.
Additionally, various other studies have shown the impact of cuteness on our actions. Research suggests that a “cute” interface can create willingness to use artificial intelligence and individuals also tend to make more indulgent purchases upon seeing cute, whimsical objects, including “cute-looking food.”
Another study in 2021 found that happier facial expressions in photographs of underprivileged children were perceived as cuter than sadder ones, leading to greater empathy in viewers and a higher level of charitable donations towards their cause.
Our response to cuteness has evolved as a crucial evolutionary mechanism, ensuring the continuation of our species. The allure of cuteness triggers strong emotions that intricately shape our behavior. Despite the occasional feeling of a loss of control it induces, cuteness remarkably enhances our alertness, focus and evokes a profound sense of love and nurturing. It appears that we are built to love and protect cute things, an instinct that resonates universally.