You couldn’t be cuter — the power of the baby schema.
Facebook has it figured out: Baby faces make us feel good, they draw our attention.
(Plus pictures of ladies with physically impossible breasts, judging by how often we see them in Facebook and the like).
Baby faces have certain proportions (height compared to width), and the same proportions draw our loving attention to cat and dog faces. (Obviously it helps to have your eyes and mouth in the right places, and the right size.)
While artists have probably known about baby faces for centuries, scientists are beginning to get the idea. Marta Borgi and fellow researchers (2014) have just used the faces in above figure to study how we feel about baby-like dog and cat faces. Try it yourself. Just compare each of the paired faces, the left to the right. With modern graphics software it’s easy to stretch a dog face into the right proportions.
This is called the “cuteness response,which elicits care taking behaviour and affects cuteness perception and attentional processes.” We spend more time looking at faces with the right baby schema, we want to hold and protect baby-faced creatures, and chances are that advertising agencies long ago figured out that we spend more money buying products linked to baby-like faces. Marilyn Monroe may be one famous example.
Notice that baby faces and extra-prominent breasts come from the same biological situation, the early bonding between Moms and young babies. Chances are that our brain’s “Awww, isn’t she cute?” response involve the two major care taking brain hormones, Oxytocin and Vasopressin. But it triggers a host of other actions and feelings, having to do with caretaking.
When does the Cuteness Response emerge in like? Very early. Borgi et al (2014) have shown that young children already focus longer on baby faces than on matched adult-like faces.
It would be interesting to look at gender differences in the Cuteness Response (CR). My bet is that women will have a stronger CR than men. But of course there are men who are drawn to care taking jobs as well.
It’s not just faces, of course. Baby voices may draw more attention, and infants screeching in the middle of the night has been known to keep parents awake for hours. We seem to empathize more with babies both when they are happy and sad or angry.
All this makes perfect sense for mammals like ourselves, who take a long time growing up. Baby monkeys can already move and cling to the Mom’s fur while moving around but human babies can’t. Our long period of helplessness in infancy means that we need more care to survive, compared to other creatures.
Future applications? I wonder if elderly people with dementia, who do not recognize their own family members, might respond to baby faces? Children often feel more secure with a soft blanket or doll. Can we give people in trouble more of a sense of security by giving them teddy bears? How about violent prisoners, who seem to respond to pink-painted walls? Would they become less violent when surrounded with baby faces?
If we can pinpoint what’s happening in the brain during the Cuteness Response, we might discover medications useful for people with Impulse Control Disorders, like explosive anger. Oxytocin has been studied with this idea in mind, but so far we have no “peacefulness drug.”
1. Marta Borgi, Irene Cogliati-Dezza, Victoria Brelsford, Kerstin Meints and Francesca Cirulli (2014), Baby schema in human and animal faces induces cuteness perception and gaze allocation in children, Front. Psychol., 06 May 2014 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00411.
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Bernard J. Baars
- My Conscious Brain