Cuteness With a Purpose

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Fans of the old TV sitcom Seinfeld will recall the episode in which Jerry and Elaine visit their friend Carol and her newborn baby Adam in the Hamptons. The proud Mom wants to show Adam off, but when she ushers Jerry and Elaine into the nursery, they are dumbstruck with horror at the baby’s looks. They manage to hide their feelings and say a few polite words, but when they’re out of earshot they can’t hold back:

Jerry: “Is it me or was that the ugliest baby you have ever seen?
Elaine: “Uh, I couldn’t look. It was like a Pekinese.”
Jerry: “Boy, a little too much chlorine in that gene pool. And you know, the thing is, they’re never going to know. No one’s ever going to tell them.”

Jerry’s right. Nobody is going to tell them—or any parent for that matter—that their baby isn’t cute. That would be cruel, and parental love trumps any objective, universal standard of cuteness anyway. But cruel or not, the fact is that some babies are cuter than others. Unless it’s your own kid, most people agree that features like big eyes, a large forehead and pinchable cheeks add up to cute.

But what is cuteness for? Psychologists have speculated that cuteness might trigger emotional bonding and nurturance in parents, and there is some evidence that women have keener perceptions than men when it comes to subtle variations of cuteness. But no clear biological link has been found between cuteness and womanhood and mothering—until now.

Psychologist Reiner Sprengelmeyer of the University of St. Andrews and an international team of colleagues decided to explore the possibility that female hormones might be linked to perception of facial cuteness. They used photographs of babies that had been manipulated by computer to very subtly alter the level of cuteness, and tested the perceptions of both women and men of various ages.

Their findings were intriguing. Young women, from 19 to 26 years old, were much more sensitive to nuances of cuteness than were either young or older men. That’s interesting in itself, but it gets better: Women who were between ages 45 and 51 were just like the younger women in their sensitivity, but women 53 to 60 were just like the men. The dividing line is right around the typical time of menopause, suggesting that female reproductive hormones may play a role on cuteness perception.

The psychologists ran a second test to double-check these findings, this time comparing pre- and post-menopausal women of the same age. They also tested young women who were (or were not) taking oral contraceptives, which artificially boost female hormones. The findings confirmed the link: As reported in the journal Psychological Science, older pre-menopausal women and younger women on the pill were much more sensitive to subtle variations in babies’ cuteness.

These studies do not show how hormones shape women’s judgments of cuteness. But since all the volunteers could see equally well, it’s likely that cuteness also elicits heartwarming emotions, and that the emotional response is entangled with actual perception of cuteness. Whatever the exact mechanism, it appears that cute babies are well designed by nature to make the rewards of motherhood outweigh all the hard work.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit "We're Only Human" at Excerpts from the blog also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind and at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:50 AM


At 12:01 AM , Blogger michelle said...

this is a very interesting topic: cuteness of babies. i'd say besides facial figures, whether babies can make cute voice, or even speak decent words when they are old enough could be a trigger too!!
awesome writing!! i am Chinese and i totally love your work!! keep rolling!!

At 9:36 PM , Blogger Marianna said...

Finally, an interesting and informative take on cuteness (with a picture of an adorable baby, no less!). I posted a link on my Facebook wall and I go to a women's college...'nuff said.

At 4:00 AM , Blogger Julie Ann said...

I am working with kids right now and this has been very very interesting and informative. Thanks!

At 4:01 AM , Blogger Julie Ann said...

I am working with children right now as a therapist and this has been very, very interesting and informative! Thanks!


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