What does it meme? Why we're (especially) drawn to cuteness right now

The charms of cuteness seem obvious. Yet, from the Japanese fear of adulting to universal attractions of indeterminacy, the new field of Cute Studies reveals layers beneath a fluffy surface. From science, psychology and history, this episode asks why small, helpless things generate powerful feelings in us.

Science, psychology and history explain why small, helpless things generate powerful feelings in us

A 1938 photo of Wilfred, the South African bush baby at the London Zoo, sitting still as his keeper grooms him with a toothbrush. A new field of Cute Studies reveals why a cute photo like this one appeals to adults. (Fox Photos/Getty Images)

*Originally published on November 23, 2020.

A tiny puppy pulls its masked companion down the street. Kittens stare from apartment windows. Work-from-homers scroll through adorable memes on sanitized phones.


We seem particularly obsessed with cuteness in this most unusual time living through a pandemic.

At a basic level, it's relief. "I think most of us want to find some glimmer of positive. Cute things do that for us," says clinical psychologist Katherine Stavropoulos.

And in a world that is also politically and socially divided, what qualifies as cute is one thing we can all agree upon.

Stavropoulos, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, points to the influential 20th century findings of ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who noted that human and animal babies are equipped with attributes that are universally appealing to adults: big head, large eyes, and a small nose. A caregiving response is activated by these features, whether you're a parent or not. 

The cuteness range

Variations do emerge, however, in our response to cuteness. Dr. Stavropolous has done neuroscience research on cute aggression. This is a physical reaction that may include balling of fists or a clenched jaw, but does not result in any harm to the cute subject.

Cuteness can cause firing of both "our emotions system and our reward system" in the brain. As she describes it: "There are a subset of people where 'it's so cute' becomes 'I'm overwhelmed.'"

Joshua Paul Dale is a writer, and professor at Tokyo Gagukei University. He established the field of Cute Studies and collaborates with other disciplines to explore the complexity of cuteness. (Yukiko Toda)

Culturally, too, there are differences. Joshua Paul Dale, who teaches at Tokyo Gagukei University, has lived in Japan for more than 25 years. He was prompted by the sight of cartoon character road construction signs to more deeply research the country's intense culture of cuteness, kawaii. 

Kawaii has ancient roots, but has gone from sweet, pastel products aimed at schoolgirls in early 20th century Japan, to a whole range of presentations today. Kawaii now includes the likes of both the heavy metal variant, Babymetal, and yami kawaii, which connotes mental and physical illness, and features clothing and products with medical imagery made cute.

What unites all of these things, notes Dale, is that the style is driven by young Japanese women and is expressive of pleasure and concerns, including the ambivalence around the conventional expectations of adult life. In contrast to cuteness elsewhere, kawaii is both a consumer lifestyle and an emotional state.

"Kawaii is more of an affective adjective, meaning you say it when you feel it." 

The deeper layers of kawaii and cuteness have led Joshua Paul Dale to write a forthcoming book called Irresistible: How Cuteness Wired Our Brains and Conquered the World, and to establish the academic field of Cute Studies, which collaborates with any number of disciplines.

At the heart of cuteness is empathy

English philosopher Simon May explores the aesthetics of cuteness in his recent book, The Power of Cute.  He argues that adults are often drawn to the "uncanny" end of cute, where "sweet qualities…get distorted into something that's darker and more indeterminate and even wounded." 

May sees this variant of cute as expressive of our era, in which both power dynamics and long-standing belief systems are being challenged, such as the binaries around "gender, age, and even species."

A man takes a picture of his wife at the first-ever Hello Kitty fan convention, Hello Kitty Con 2014, in Los Angeles. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

As an example, May points to the popular girl-cat hybrid from Japan, Hello Kitty. Kitty's image adorns everything from children's toys to Taiwanese bullet trains, and she is the focus of an adoring international fandom — something anthropologist Christine Yano researched in depth for her study of the phenomenon, Pink Globalization.

While acknowledging that Hello Kitty is a savvily-marketed brand, and the focus of criticism for her passivity, she believes that Kitty's message of friendship and caring has relevance for our beleaguered world.

  "If there's anything that's supposed to be at the core of something like kawaii or cuteness, it is empathy."

Guests in this episode:

Joshua Paul Dale is a professor at Tokyo Gakugei University specializing in Cute Studies. His forthcoming book is called Irresistible: How Cuteness Wired Our Brains and Conquered the World (Profile Books, 2021).

Simon May is Visiting Professor of Philosophy at King's College London. He's the author of several books, including The Power of Cute (Princeton University Press, 2019).

Katherine Stavropoulos is a clinical psychologist, assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California Riverside, and principal investigator of the Social Cognitive Developmental Neuroscience Lab. She wrote about Baby Yoda for Psychology Today.

Christine Yano is professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, president of the Association of Asian Studies, and author of Pink Globalization: Hello Kitty's Trek Across the Pacific (Duke University Press, 2013).

* This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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