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Business News/ Specials / Small, but mighty: how cuteness has taken over the world
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Small, but mighty: how cuteness has taken over the world

The Economoist

A supposedly childish aesthetic is being taken more seriously

Hello Kitty figures on display at 'Cute', an exhibition exploring the idea of cuteness in contemporary culture, at Somerset House in London on 5 February. Photo: ReutersPremium
Hello Kitty figures on display at 'Cute', an exhibition exploring the idea of cuteness in contemporary culture, at Somerset House in London on 5 February. Photo: Reuters

Scroll through any social-media feed, and before long a cute video will appear. Perhaps it shows a giggling baby or a rabbit nibbling strawberries. A red panda might be throwing its paws in the air, like a furry thief being apprehended, or a kitten may sit astride a tiny motorcycle. The supply of these endearing clips is huge. On TikTok there are 65m videos tagged #cute. The demand is even greater: those videos have been viewed more than 625bn times.

Cute things are everywhere, not just online. In Japan—where appreciation for all things kawaii is especially keen—roadblocks come in the form of dolphins, ducks or frogs. Hello Kitty, a cartoon, adorns everything from phone chargers to first-aid kits. In America a puppy has advertised beer, and an endearing gecko helps GEICO sell around $39bn in car insurance a year. In Britain a cartoon koala helps peddle toilet paper.

An interest in the adorable has long been derided as girlish and frivolous. But cuteness has recently become a subject of serious inquiry, inspiring scientific research, academic literature—dubbed “Cute Studies"—and a recent book, “Irresistible: How Cuteness Wired our Brains and Conquered the World". A new exhibition at Somerset House in London (pictured) also examines the ubiquity of cuteness in culture, bringing together art, games and toys. Cuteness “has taken over", says Claire Catterall, the curator. “It’s infiltrated almost every aspect of our lives."

What do humans consider cute? In the 1940s Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist, found that people are drawn to babies with big eyes, a small nose and mouth and round cheeks, as well as a pudgy body, short arms and legs and a wobbly gait. These traits motivated people to nurture and protect babies, helping ensure their survival. Humans are so drawn to these attributes that cats and dogs may have been bred to emphasise those same features. Cartoon characters have morphed, too. For instance, Mickey Mouse’s arms, legs and nose have shrunk since 1928, while his head and eyes have become larger.

A study from 2015 found that participants felt more energetic and positive, and less annoyed, anxious or sad, after watching cat videos. Morten Kringelbach, a neuroscientist at Oxford University, has studied the brain’s rapid reaction to baby faces: the orbitofrontal cortex—a region linked with pleasure, among other things—is activated within a seventh of a second. (Men and women are equally eager to look at adorable infants.)

Cuteness is not a new obsession. Japanese artists in the Edo period (between 1603 and 1868) painted puppies or fashioned them out of ivory. Joshua Paul Dale, the author of “Irresistible", argues that the popularity of Cupids in Renaissance and Rococo art made winged babies “the major expression of cuteness in Western art for three centuries". Technology has offered new ways to enjoy winsome things. Harry Pointer’s photographs from the 1870s, on display at Somerset House, depict felines in anthropomorphised ways, sitting on tricycles or in prams. As he added amusing captions, he is credited as the inventor of the cat meme.

It was in the 20th century that cuteness dug in its tiny claws. Walt Disney brought a parade of wide-eyed creatures to cinemas across the world. (He apparently instructed his animators to “Keep it cute!") Japanese kawaii culture also went global, with the spread of anime films and manga comic books. After the advent of mass production, cute trinkets and toys became widely available; Sanrio, which owns Hello Kitty, has $3.8bn in sales a year.

Then, with the internet, cuteness became available on demand. People could watch and share amusing content of their children or favourite animals at any time—in 2022 more than 90,000 videos of cats were uploaded to YouTube every day. So voracious is the appetite for cute content that in 2014, when Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, was asked what surprised him most about internet usage, he replied simply: “Kittens."

Cuteness has real-world uses. Lovot, a doe-eyed companion robot with a button nose, is covered in sensors and responds positively when cuddled. Such innovations may help combat loneliness among the elderly. Policymakers, too, might harness the power of cute to nudge people’s behaviour. Japan’s kawaii barriers are thought to reduce road-rage incidents. Putting images on bins of sea turtles or dolphins trapped in rubbish has been shown to reduce plastic waste. Mr Kringelbach says that cute babies can encourage people to have empathy for demonised groups such as refugees. An appreciation for cute things is a joy in and of itself, but it also “has the potential to change the world", he argues. How’s that for a cute idea?

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© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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Published: 03 Apr 2024, 05:00 PM IST
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