What is it about the sight of an infant that makes almost everyone crack a smile? Big eyes, chubby cheeks, and a button nose? An infectious laugh, soft skin, and a captivating smell? These characteristics contribute to ‘cuteness’ and propel our caregiving behaviours, which is vital because infants need our constant attention to survive and thrive. Infants attract us through all our senses, which helps make cuteness one of the most basic and powerful forces shaping our behaviour.
Our research has shown that cuteness helps infants to survive by eliciting caregiving, which cannot be reduced to simple, instinctual behaviours. Instead, caregiving involves a complex choreography of slow, careful, deliberate, and long-lasting prosocial behaviours, which ignite fundamental brain pleasure systems that are also engaged when eating food or listening to music, and always involve pleasant experiences.
Interestingly, the research shows that cuteness affects both men and women, even those without children. As such it might be a fundamental response present in everyone, regardless of parental status or gender. In a six-year ERC-funded longitudinal research project, we have been studying of what happens to the brain responses when we become parents.