An Expert Explains the Science of Cuteness—and Why We Can't Get Enough of Baby Yoda
We haven't stopped thinking about Baby Yoda and the character's ridiculous cuteness since we first started watching The Mandalorian—and based on the internet's reaction, it's clear we aren't alone.
But why exactly do we have such strong attachments to ultra-cute characters? We were curious, so we reached out to social psychologist Oriana Aragón. She's an assistant professor at Clemson University's School of Business, and she studies the expression and communication of emotion.
She filled us in on all things related to the science of cuteness—see what she had to say below!
Sweety High: What are some of the primary human reactions to cuteness?
Oriana Aragón: Cuteness is actually a physicality or a set of physical characteristics. There are very specific characteristics to being "cute," including large heads with small bodies, rounded features with big eyes, small noses, small mouths, and—in humans—pudgy cheeks and big foreheads.
Then there are the things that are just mini versions of larger objects. One time I was looking at an aerial photograph of the ocean, pretty close to the water level, and I could see a whale under the surface. I thought, "Oh, cool. Look at the whale." But then the next shot over showed the same whale, but it had a huge whale—its mama whale—next to it, and I realized it was a baby, and I thought, "Oh! It's so cute! Look at the baby whale!" Just knowing it was a miniature version of a whale made it adorable.
One of the young women who works in my laboratory had this mini office stationery set in her backpack, with a mini-stapler and mini-tape dispenser and all that, and everyone said, "So cute!" Even the guys reacted to these baby versions of office supplies.
When part or all of these features are present, we make an assessment that it's cute, and once this cute trigger has been pulled, all the care responses follow in us humans. We like it, we think it's good, and we want to protect it and feed it and nurture it and make sure it's having a good time, and safe.
SH: What's the purpose of interpreting things as "cute"?
OA: It's kind of a weird thing that those physical characteristics generalize beyond human babies. Why do we do this? We do it with dogs, and whales, and staplers. It's almost like our brain is pattern-matching. We'd normally find these patterns in infantile humans, and we're matching them onto whatever we're looking at.
The scientific community thinks we interpret cuteness because it helps with the survival of our species and makes us take care of our young. It has to be a highly potent signal with a highly potent response to get us to continually care for offspring that needs years of close attention and care. It makes sense that this is a really well-preserved basic instinct within us.
SH: Speaking of cuteness, Baby Yoda has been taking the world by storm. Why do we react so strongly to cute characters like that?
OA: I've been doing press interviews for Baby Yoda, and it's pretty funny. As soon as The Mandalorian came out and people started getting excited about it, I knew I was going to be hearing a lot about the character.
Baby Yoda kicks off an awful lot of those physical characteristics that we recognize as cute, so it's going to inspire all kinds of reactions. It's just hooking into that system that recognizes infantile humans. That's what's getting those strong emotional responses, care responses and even cute aggression responses—like "I'm gonna eat him up!"
I think it's a really nice pattern match, and it's adorable to watch it happen. There's also the flavor of an entire generation of people who love Star Wars seeing something and all agreeing on its cuteness and then being able to enjoy that commonality and all the other things that it implicates. Some of it is just running away and having a good time with it, and some of it is being spurred on by this innate, natural response to cute that we have. That's why it becomes a phenomenon.
(The Mandalorian via Disney+)
SH: Is there a difference in cuteness responses between men and women?
OA: In private, when you get the social norms out of the way, there doesn't seem to be too much of a difference between men and women when they look at cute stuff. With guys, we see they feel the need to hold back in public. They're supposed to be tough and not as squishy about cute things, but they are.
Our brand new research has to do with a willingness to look at cute things in adults, and relates that to gender and whether or not people want children. We try to frame whether babies are seen as being fragile or being very robust. Women prefer the robust story—that moms shouldn't worry if babies eat every meal because they'll get enough weight, of whether they get enough sleep. That they'll be fine.
Men like the fragile story more. They like hearing that babies are delicate, and that they better be careful. They have to make sure they're eating and sleeping enough, and that baby needs them.
We expose people to one framing or the other and we find that people's willingness to engage with babies—or even rounded things that are shaped "cutely"—changes depending on the stories and whether they're in the frame of mind to have children. Men engage with babies more when they hear the delicate story, but women are the other way around. They're more in tune with the babies with robust stories, when the babies survive and do really well.
I think it has to do with modern-day parental care. I don't think it's equal yet, and maybe those preferences have to do with where that care is going to land. It makes sense the robust message is more attractive to the women who are actually going to take care of the babies.
Historically, it's been speculated that high carers have a stronger cute response. People who want children would want to care. We wanted to experimentally see if that's what's really going on. If it's about care, and we show people robust babies and take away their opportunity to care when they want to, does it turn their engagement off the babies? We find that it does.
If I give you the robust message and you're in "I want to care for a baby" mode, you're going to disengage with baby stimuli. If you're somebody who wants babies, and I show you that robust baby message and then show you a bunch of babies, you won't be that interested in looking at them. But if you want children and I tell you babies are fragile and they need you, you'll be super engaged.
It's the flip side for people who don't want children. When you provide framing that babies require a lot of care to those who don't want children currently, then you show them cute puppies, they don't want to engage as much. When you tell them babies are robust and show them the puppies, or even cute staplers, you see greater engagement. Even if they don't want babies, they do still like these cute and rounded things.
Love cute animals? Click HERE to learn the science of why petting cats and dogs can relieve stress.