On Cuteness: Unlocking the Parental Brain and Beyond

Trends Cogn Sci. 2016 Jul;20(7):545-558. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2016.05.003. Epub 2016 May 19.


Cuteness in offspring is a potent protective mechanism that ensures survival for otherwise completely dependent infants. Previous research has linked cuteness to early ethological ideas of a 'Kindchenschema' (infant schema) where infant facial features serve as 'innate releasing mechanisms' for instinctual caregiving behaviours. We propose extending the concept of cuteness beyond visual features to include positive infant sounds and smells. Evidence from behavioural and neuroimaging studies links this extended concept of cuteness to simple 'instinctual' behaviours and to caregiving, protection, and complex emotions. We review how cuteness supports key parental capacities by igniting fast privileged neural activity followed by slower processing in large brain networks also involved in play, empathy, and perhaps even higher-order moral emotions.

Keywords: Kawaii; affiliative; caregiving; emotion; neuroimaging; pleasure.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Emotions*
  • Face / anatomy & histology*
  • Facial Expression
  • Humans
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Parenting
  • Parents*
  • Paternal Behavior / physiology*