Interview with: Joshua Paul Dale
Joshua Paul Dale, a professor at Tokyo’s Chuo University who specializes in Cute Studies, discusses how cuteness has evolved, the difference between the American and Japanese (kawaii) versions, and why people respond to it.
How did you get interested in this subject?
About ten years ago, I was walking down my street in Japan and noticed that the construction barriers had been replaced with Hello Kitty-style animals. It made me pay more attention to kawaii cuteness and how omnipresent this phenomenon is here. Even train safety posters and manhole covers are full of cute characters and images.
After doing more research, I realized that not much had been written about cuteness, which I thought was strange because it’s a multibillion-dollar global phenomenon thanks to franchises such as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, and Pokémon. The more I researched, the deeper the topic went—it goes so far back in history, I thought that it must have been important in our evolution as a species. It’s also embedded into so many different academic disciplines, including the humanities, art and literature, biology, and cognitive psychology. So I launched the Cute Studies project and opened it to anyone from any discipline. The response has been great.
When was cuteness first studied?
The first person to research cuteness was Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian biologist who theorized about it in 1943. He thought that we have an instinct we can’t help but act on—when we see something cute, we immediately rush to care for it—and developed a schema of childlike characteristics that most people inherently find cute, such as big eyes and chubby cheeks. Other scientists have confirmed this schema, but they disagree with Lorenz’s conclusion that it’s an instinctive response. In recent years, using fMRI machines they’ve found that while cuteness attracts our attention quickly in terms of our brain activity, our behavior after that reaction is also based on our individual preferences, experience, and culture.
Has cuteness always been part of the human experience?
That’s a good question. One theory posits that people began to practice cooperative breeding, a distinctly human phenomenon among primates where mothers would allow others to help take care of their children; in turn, those people would want to do so because they were drawn to the child’s cuteness. So cuteness created a net gain: even if you expended energy taking care of someone else’s child without having your genes passed along, the whole species still benefited. This theory puts cuteness at the dawn of the evolution of our genus, which means Neanderthals would’ve experienced it the way we do.
In contrast, some experts believe that we’re cuter than Neanderthals because we’ve become neotenic: we have juvenile characteristics that persist into adulthood and follow the same schema that Lorenz developed in the 1940s. According to that school of thought, cuteness developed when Homo sapiens did.
When did the focus on kawaii begin in Japan?
It can be traced back 1,000 years. Some major artwork from back then clearly tries to trigger the cuteness response. It’s been part of Japanese culture, especially visual art, ever since. The Edo period in particular, from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, has tons of examples of cute things.
In terms of modern culture, kawaii took off in the early twentieth century. At that time, Japanese girls were educated in separate schools, so they had a chance to form their own subculture. Later, in the 1970s, the unique style of kawaiiinfluenced handwriting they developed helped kawaii expand into mainstream culture. This is also when Hello Kitty appeared.
How is cuteness perceived differently between cultures?
The primary types of cuteness today are North American cuteness and Japanese kawaii. The main difference is that the English word cute originally came from acute, which meant “clever” or “shrewd.” In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was directed toward an adult who was cunning and may try to trick you out of something.
I think that influence still exists in some ways. For example, if you look at the history of American animation, cute characters often have an appearance that’s a bit twisted. The early Mickey Mouse was cunning and played tricks, but Disney got the message from audiences and made him younger and cuter. Even today, Americans seem to like cuteness with a bit of a noncute twist, and it’s more ironic to them. In Japan, the focus is mainly on what you feel, not just on what you’re looking at.
Which part of the brain is triggered by cuteness, and what benefits do we get from it?
Broadly speaking, cuteness activates the reward areas of the brain that release serotonin and oxytocin, so it can help with stress release. It’s like a feedback loop: when you see something cute, it makes you feel good, and when you look at it again, you feel even better. Cuteness is a kind of cognitive priming that gets the brain ready for a positive experience.
Is that why people are drawn to taking care of babies, puppies, and kittens?
Yes, take care of and socialize with them. For babies to survive as members of a community, they need to be taught how to interact with others. So having something that pushes us to not only take care of babies but also play with them is vital to our evolution as a species. Cuteness also humanizes things—if we see something as cute, it prompts us to treat it as a fellow being, even if it’s an animal or object, by increasing our empathy.
Why do people squeal when they see something cute?
It’s a phenomenon called cute aggression. It’s basically cute overload. When feeling overwhelmed by cuteness, about half of adults will experience symptoms like squealing or a clenched fist or jaw to deal with their excess emotions. That’s why one of the first things we teach young children is that you can’t squeeze a puppy too hard.
Cuteness has also been used as a marketing tool. Do you see that expanding?
Definitely. In the future, we’re going to see more AI products that look and act cute. Right now, people tend to get frustrated with such a product if it doesn’t do what’s expected. But if it’s cute and makes a mistake, they’re likely to be more forgiving. Corporations are well aware of this, and they’re starting to build cute attributes into these machines.
Will people always be drawn to cuteness?
I certainly hope so! [Laughs] I have a Google Scholar alert for kawaii and cuteness, and I’ve seen an uptick in the number of articles written on these topics in a variety of fields, from robotics to marketing.
The biggest change that’s happened since I moved here is that Japanese culture has become more popular overseas due to younger generations really getting into manga and anime. So we’re going to see an even greater interest in kawaii as they grow up and continue to appreciate it.
Dale is the author of Irresistible: How Cuteness Wired our Brains and Conquered the World.
For more info, visit cutestudies.org