Every day, all over the country, people do it. They do it when they should be working. They do it from their phones when they’re on break. They do it from their desktop computers when they should be sleeping. Hundreds of thousands of hours of work and family time are wasted each year because…we’re addicted to cute.
If you want to garner a million views on YouTube, just post a cute animal video. At my last count, almost 220 million people have logged in to watch a 16-second clip of a mother panda reacting to her baby’s sneeze. That’s an incredible one hundred and eleven years in total spent watching this video, sixteen seconds at a time.
Whole websites are devoted to cute, particularly cats doing cute things. We’re obsessed with cute. We seem to need cute like we need food, and when we find it on the internet we share our treasure.
If you have more than ten Facebook friends, it’s a pretty good bet that on any given day your newsfeed will be half-full of cute animal pictures. A friend once joked that Facebook is nothing more than a vehicle for cute cat videos. But why do we crave cuteness so much? It turns out, an attraction to cute is hard-wired into our brains.
Cuteness is like a drug to your brain
Has this ever happened to you? You click on a cute cat or kid video a friend shared with you. You think you’ll take a minute to watch it, then go on about your normal routine. Hours later you surface, dazed and confused after watching one video after another, and wonder where on earth your afternoon went.
Here’s the answer: cute is addictive. Literally.
When we see something cute, our bodies release a burst of dopamine in our brains. This is the same “feel-good” chemical that floods our brains when we have sex, or take recreational drugs, or eat sugar. The dopamine activates the pleasure centers of our brains, making us feel good. Getting this chemical reward programs the brain to repeat the action that achieved the reward in the first place, so we do it again. And again. That’s how you find yourself clicking “play” on yet another cute video, or clicking through yet another slideshow when you know you should be cooking dinner.
I’ll admit it. While writing this, I clicked on the mother panda link. And I watched the 16-second video, like the other 220 million people before me. And when I was done, I clicked on another.
I just couldn’t help myself.
We’re programmed to fall for cute things
The features that we find cute are strikingly similar across cultures and across time. Whether we’re in the U.S., China, Africa or Indonesia, the concept of cute has several universal traits. We tend to think things are cute when they have:
- Big heads
- Big eyes
- Chubby cheeks
- Big foreheads
- Small bodies
- and round features
Does that bring anything to mind?
Scientists theorize that our concept of “cute” and our overwhelming attraction to it is a survival mechanism. In order to survive and thrive as a species, we have to take care of our young. And we have to do it for a very long time before they’re able to care for themselves. Human infants are some of the most helpless creatures on the planet, and without this built-in reward system we’d be much less likely to care for them — especially if they’re not our own.
The instinctive attraction to cuteness supported the advancement of our species by ensuring that a human infant who had lost its mother could attract another adult to care for it. Unfortunately, that instinctual urge to coo over and care for cute things seems to apply to anything with a big head, big eyes, or chubby cheeks, whether it’s a baby, a panda bear, or a cartoon robot. Just ask the man whose YouTube channel — devoted to chubby-cheeked hamsters doing things like eating tiny burritos — has racked up millions of views.
You may be wondering if there’s any way to break this addiction to cute. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be — having a chocolate bar would activate the same parts of your brain but would be much worse for your health — and doing so wouldn’t be particularly beneficial anyway. But, the next time you waste an entire morning scrolling through cute pictures in your Facebook feed, at least you’ll understand why.
You just can’t help yourself. It’s biology.