Thursday, October 9, 2008

Preliminary Literature Review

Completed and turned in October 9th, 2008. A preview of what the final literature review will look like.


This paper is written with translation to book and presentation in mind. Intended audience is also an important factor and results in a unique voice for the narrative. As the audience consists of mostly designers with no scientific background, subtopics are brief and interconnected, flowing easily and providing step-by-step comprehension. Each scientific topic is mirrored by a real world example, creating memorable connections. This excerpt comprises two sections of the larger book, one a scientific history on the study of cuteness and the other an opinion piece on the utilization of cute design by student designers.

Overall Organization (* = Discussed in the following paragraphs)
  • What is cute? (Cute through history. Cites scientific studies and writings on cute.)
    • * Brief history of how we evolved into cuteness
    • * Konrad Lorenz; evolution and biology of cute
    • Stephen Hamann; psychology of cute
    • Stephen Jay Gould; evolution of Mickey mouse

  • Cute takes on culture. (How we have infused cuteness into our lives.)
    • Examples of cuteness in modern culture (American and Japanese)
    • List of cute characteristics
    • In-depth case studies
    • Survey results
    • Reaction Obbservation results
    • Variations on cute; combining cuteness with other features

  • The future of cute. (Utilizing cute design. Timelessness)
    • Cute as a marketing strategy.
    • What does this mean for designers today?
    • * Developing a case for cuteness. The future of cute.
    • Cute furniture design. A series of sketches.

What is Cute?

The history of cuteness begins several million years ago. As humans were developing, brain size began to increase dramatically. This, however, created a problem as childbirth became very painful for women, who have narrow birth canals. The solution was to give birth to babies with smaller, highly undeveloped brains (Miles), leaving a child helpless and completely dependant upon adult care during its early months. But what makes parents devote so much time and energy into the care of their children? Cuteness appears to play an important role.

Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian Nobel Prize winner, was the first to publish his theories on the cuteness in the 1940s. In his essay on the components of human society, he observed that infantile features triggered a nurturing response in adults, a process that he called the Innate Releasing Mechanism (IRM). IRM refers to any instinctive behavioral pattern shared amongst a species. In this case, he argued that the ‘cuddly’ and ‘loveable’ features of infants were an evolutionary adaptation ensuring that adults would care for and protect their offspring. He went on to list specific physical traits common to most species that would trigger the nurturing effect in their adult counterparts: “a relatively large head, predominance of the brain capsule, large and low-lying eyes, bulging cheek region, short and thick extremities, a springy elastic consistency, and clumsy movements” (Lorenz, 154).

(pg. 155) Infant head proportions vs. Adult head proportions.

He coined the term kindchenschema for this phenomenon, loosely meaning baby pattern. The German syllable ”chen,” which doesn’t have a literal translation in English, is a diminutive suffix found in the names of many animals popularly considered cute, such as rotkehlchen (robin), Eichhörnchen (squirrel), and Kaninchen (rabbit). “In all of these cases, the final syllable does not express the smallness but definitely the ‘loveable’ nature of the animals concerned” (154).

Lorenz noted that even inanimate objects displaying cute features triggered the innate releasing mechanism in adults. He further attempted to explain why we respond to these cute cues:

“The so-called process of ‘physiognomic experience’, even where inanimate environmental objects are concerned, is… based upon a sharply-defined process of biologically erroneous response[s] to releasing mechanisms, whose actual species-preserving function is the understanding of specific human motor display patterns. …In this way, the most amazing objects can acquire remarkable, highly specific emotional values by ‘experiential attachment’ of human properties” (156).

Basically, our eyes observe the many physical features of a person, animal, or object. Our brain then automatically interprets these visual signals in a way that promotes a response. This process is known as physiognomy, the interpretation of facial features and overall appearance in order to determine one’s character or temper (156). This ability to predict what another is feeling or thinking is an evolutionary trait that was adapted for our survival.

Lorenz suggests that when we see typically cute features in an infant, we subconsciously associate them with ‘helplessness,’ therefore triggering our instinct to nurture and protect. But why, then, do we see baby animals and inanimate objects as cute? After all, wanting to care for an inanimate object does note promote human survival. The reason he gives for this is ”experiential attachment,” the tendency to link current experiences with previous experiences, even in abstract and imaginative ways. The easiest way to look at it is to use an example of the transitive property:

If A=B and B=C, then A=C.

If a bunny has the same features as a baby, and babies are cute, then a bunny is cute.

Lorenz believed that our proclivity towards experiential attachment is incredibly high; so high that we often make mistakes. Stephen Spielberg capitalized on this tendency with his 1984 movie, entitled “Gremlins.” Everything about Gizmo (pictured below) tells us that he is cute: his large, low-sitting eyes, disproportionately large head and ears, round body, and stubby appendages. But what you soon find out is that Gizmo is anything but cute. He and his friends disarm all with an adorable smile, only to unleash terror on a small town.

This is a non-factual but telling example of how our innate biological responses can get the better of us. When an object is cute, we are more likely to overlook its faults. And while this is an extreme and tragic case of misplaced affection, it is important to note that this predisposition helped ensure our survival millions of years ago.

Developing a Case for Cuteness

As much as some of us would like to believe that we are “looks blind,” it appears that there is a mountain of evidence that would prove otherwise. Scientists have thoroughly studied the role of aesthetics in our everyday lives, and beautiful or cute objects have dominated the marketplace. But beauty and cuteness differ in very fundamental ways:

“[Cuteness] emphasizes rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Beauty attracts admiration and demands a pedestal; cuteness attracts affection and demands a lap. Beauty is rare and brutal, despoiled by a single pimple. Cuteness is commonplace and generous, content on occasion to cosegregate with homeliness (Angier).

The design profession has capitalized on each of these essential elements. We are bombarded on several fronts, from magazines to television to film, with beautiful models and cute cartoons, selling everything from clothing to perfume and comic books to toys.

If student designers are to thrive in their profession today, they must appeal to these sensitivities. Beauty in design has received much attention, and the elements of beauty adorn every designer’s rulebook. But cuteness has been overlooked in our schooling. The use of cute cues provides a strong psychological and aesthetic impact, and students utilizing them will quickly realize their power.

Works Cited

Angier, Natalie. “The Cute Factor.” New York Times. 3 January 2006.
Lorenz, Konrad. Studies in Human and Animal Behavior. “Part and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies” Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA; 1971.
Miles, Naomi. “Science of Cuteness.” First Science. 27 April 2007.

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