Babies and newborn animals aren’t just cute by accident — the cuteness is actually crucial for their survival, and is intended to trigger caregiving behaviours.
Researchers from the UK say those triggers go way beyond the physical appearance of cuteness. Based on a massive review of what we know about our sense of cuteness in infants, positive infant sounds and smells are also involved.
According to the researchers from the University of Oxford, there’s something else going on besides simple triggering of care-giving behaviours, which could explain why both parents and non-parents are wowed by a cute infant. Feelings of empathy and compassion, as well as a facilitating of social relations, might also be involved in our compulsion to pamper babies with care. Take that infectious baby laugh, for example. “Infant laughs and babbles are examples of what has been called ‘auditory cuteness’, where the infant’s well-stretched vibrating vocal membrane produces high frequency and pure tone-like sounds that attract caregivers,” the researchers write in Trends in Cognitive Sciences.
The researchers point to a 1983 study in which olfactory cues — or scents — were found to help strengthen the bond between mother and baby.
Looking at dozens of published studies, the team thinks this broader concept of cuteness has a more complicated effect on our brains. Not only does it provoke a fast and immediate caregiving response, it also causes a slower and more long-term reaction, they suggest. This could be a willingness to engage in play, or a growing sense of empathy over time.