The Science of Being Cute

Adelie penguin chicks in Antartica
Photo by Liam Quinn, via Flickr

Cute things are popular around the world. But why? Liz Waid and Mike Procter discuss the reasons people respond to cute things.

Watch Video


Voice 1

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Liz Waid.

Voice 2

And I’m Mike Procter. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1

In 2005 many people watched the documentary “March of the Penguins.” This film continues to be popular today. The film shows a real group of birds in Antarctica. It is about their journey to mate and raise their young. But these birds do not fly. The penguins walk together across the ice of Antarctica. Imagine a group of fat black and white birds walking in a line. Suddenly, one penguin loses his balance. He falls on the ice. This happens a few times in the film. Every time penguins fall down people watching the film laugh. The penguins are cute!

Voice 2

People liked the film very much. So much, in fact, that police in England think that it may be the reason behind a crime. A man went to a zoo in London and stole a baby penguin. Authorities think that the man stole the penguin after seeing the film. They believe he wanted to give it away as a Christmas gift.

Voice 1

What is it about these animals that make people spend money to see a film many times? Why would someone break the law to steal an animal? Today’s Spotlight is on the science behind what makes something cute!

Voice 2

Michel Gauthier-Clerc studies penguins. He thinks that many people like penguins. But some people do not understand them. He told the New York Times newspaper,

Voice 3

“People love the penguin’s way of standing straight upright. They like its colours, which look like human clothes - a tuxedo suit. And they like the way it waddles as it walks. How like a child playing dress-up in adult clothes!”

Voice 1

These things make penguins seem cute to people. But there are good reasons for all of these things. For example, the way penguins walk. Penguins move from side to side when they walk. People call this way of walking ‘waddling.’ The penguins may seem to be out of balance. But Doctor Gauthier-Clerc says that the penguins waddle to save energy. In cold Antarctica, penguins must keep warm. The penguins’ colour also has a special purpose. It protects the penguins when they are swimming. From below, larger animals cannot see the penguin’s white underside. It looks the same as the bright sky or ice. And from above, other animals cannot see the penguin’s black back against the dark ocean floor.

Voice 2

The penguins’ colours protect them in nature. But scientists have found that some of these physical details also have an effect on humans. These scientists study visual signaling. The way an animal looks sends a message to other animals, and to people. Some of these visual signals make animals seem cute to people.

Voice 1

If something is cute, it is beautiful in a special way. Cuteness is a special kind of beauty that makes people happy. Some physical characteristics that people think are cute are big round ears and arms and legs that seem weak. Scientists call these physical details “cute cues.” Cute cues are those things that make something look young, weak, harmless, or needy. Scientists say that humans react to these cues. Humans have a desire to care for things that look and act similar to babies.

Voice 2

People often find babies to be very cute. An adult may have a strong desire to hold a baby and kiss her because she is so cute. Spotlight producer Joshua Leo has a baby daughter. He describes why she is so cute:

Voice 4 

“My baby has a very round head. Her head is still very big compared to her body. Her eyes are low on her face and they look big. She has smooth skin and soft hair. My baby daughter does not have much control over her body. She cannot yet move her arms and legs very well.”

Voice 1

Scientists believe that humans are very sensitive to things that are cute. Humans react to anything that looks similar to a human baby. Humans even react to objects that may look like parts of a baby. Humans react to the soft hair on a baby bird, the movement of a round balloon, a small round car, or even a large round rock on top of a smaller rock! The more cute cues that an animal or object has, the more people may like it.

Voice 2

Researchers are still learning about the science of cuteness. Recent studies show that cute images affect the brain in a special way. Cute images make the brain react in a similar way to a good meal or some drugs. Cute things make us feel happy.

Voice 1

Cute images have a lot of power. A study done at the University of Michigan in the United States showed this to be true. The study tested young people’s reactions to images. It found that young people believed messages more if the message was joined by a cute picture. The researchers showed the young people two messages. One was a simple anti-smoking message. The other showed a cute animal telling them that smoking was bad. Then the researchers tested the young people’s reactions. The young people trusted the cute messages more than the simple message.

Voice 2

Experts say that every human on the planet is made to react to cute images. But some cultures react to cuteness more than others. They say this is similar to the love of sugar. Everyone is able to taste sweet things. But some people and some countries eat more sweet foods than other people.

Voice 1

For example, many people in the country of Japan like cute things very much. In Japan cute things are called “Kawaii.” Images of people and animals with big heads and big eyes are on many things. Children love Kawaii animals. But these cute things are not only for children. Many Japanese men and women also like Kawaii.

Voice 2

Cuteness attracts people. People want to hold and care for cute things. God made humans in a special way. He made us to naturally react to cute things. People are made to protect the helpless things in life, such as small babies. When people see something cute they want to care for it. God gave people this reaction. This way we remember to take good care of things that cannot care for themselves.

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Joshua Leo. The producer was Rena Dam. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at This program is called, “The Science of Being Cute”.

Voice 2

You can also leave your comments on our website. Or you can email us at You can also find us on Facebook - just search for spotlightradio. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye


What do you think makes something cute? What is the cutest thing you have ever seen?


Avatar Spotlight
said on July 08, 2013

Baby penguins look cute in the picture.  But I wonder if they smell funny.

Avatar Spotlight
said on December 22, 2013

Penguins are so cute. In the above picture, I also image that they are the kids smiling and playing in the mud.

Avatar Spotlight
said on May 26, 2015

I like very much of penguins and they are so cute, but the adults penguins are very severe
with each other when they protect their nests. Sometimes they fight to the death.

Avatar Spotlight
Johanna Castillo
said on May 10, 2016

Interesting, this program clarified me some things and Now I understand why I adore the big and deep eyes ,  a warm and likeable voice , and the tenderness,  actually all those things are my weak either in a person or any other living thing.

Avatar Spotlight
Joseph Van
said on May 10, 2016

“God gave people this reaction” is really needless, it shows an absurd in the process of writing! If a premise is accepted without doubts, how can we be sure about the rest? I really hope the next be more free of beliefs.

Avatar Spotlight
said on May 12, 2016

Everyone loves cute things. We like making cute things. We like becoming cute. We like becoming lovely. When we do beautiful good things we are lovely. When we do not-good things we are not lovely. Loveliness may be of appearance. Loveliness may be of soul. We love cuteness. We like becoming cute. We like loveliness in appearance. We like loveliness in soul.

Severino Ramos da Silva's avatar
Severino Ramos da Silva
said on May 14, 2016

From: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) (Severino Ramos)
To: spotlight program
Subject: answer to the question above
Date: Saturday 14, May 2016
São Paulo SP Brazil

Dear Liz Waid, Rena Dam, Mike Procter, and Joshua Leo:

First of all, I want to thank you for more one great issue for us readers and learners of English. Thanks!

I think what makes something cute are the smile and way to behave. The cutest things that I have seen are the babies and the penguins. The penguins have a special way to walk. The penguins are so cute. They look like a tree with a lot of left on the side of them. This issue is very interesting.

Yours regards,
Severino Ramos

Avatar Spotlight
said on January 10, 2018

Surely, the look on the small, weak, vulnerable creatures especially the young of humans or animals make us feel a strong desire to take good care or them, protect them because of their cuteness, helplessness. All cute things or pictures attract people bringing them the subconscious feeling of happiness, pleasure and love as well. We should thank God for giving us such wonderful ability to perceive, feel and react just in that way!