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Cuteness is a delicate and attractive kind of beauty commonly associated with youth, innocence, and helplessness. Human infants and many baby animals define "cuteness" for most people, and the standard characteristics of infancy are typically used to judge the cuteness of other phenomena (for example, plush toys or adult animals).
Cuteness is usually characterized by some combination of infant-like physical traits, especially small size, large eyes, a small nose, dimples, and chubby limbs. Infantile personality traits, such as playfulness, fragility, helplessness, and affectionate behavior are also generally considered cute. Kittens are often claimed to be the cutest animals in the world.
Psychology of cuteness
Konrad Lorenz argued in 1950 that infantile features triggered nurturing responses in adults. Lorenz argued that this was an evolutionary adaptation, which helped ensure that adults cared for their children, ultimately securing the survival of the race. As evidence for this theory, Lorenz noted that humans react more positively to animals that resemble infants—with big eyes, big heads, shortened noses, etc.—than to animals that do not. Lorenz noted that in German the names of infant-like animals often end in the diminutive suffix -chen (for example, Rotkehlchen, or robin). Animals without these features do not have the suffix, even when they are quite small.
Another way to phrase Lorenz's point is to say that humans prefer animals which exhibit paedomorphism. Paedomorphism is the retention of child-like characteristics—such as big heads or large eyes—into adulthood. Thus, paedomorphism and cuteness may explain the popularity of Giant Pandas. The widely perceived cuteness of domesticated animals, such as dogs and cats, may be due to the fact that humans selectively breed their animals for infant-like characteristics, including non-aggressive behavior and child-like appearance.  
Some later scientific studies have provided further evidence for Lorenz's theory. For example, it has been shown that human adults react positively to infants who are stereotypically cute. Studies have also shown that responses to cuteness—and to facial attractiveness generally—seem to be similar across and within cultures.  (PDF)
Additionally, cuteness—or at least physical characteristics associated with infancy—seems to be recognized instinctively by many mammals other than humans. This is probably because infant mammals share many of the same characteristics as infant humans. The many documented cases of wild animals adopting human foundlings may be explained by the human children's cuteness triggering the maternal instinct in their animal foster mothers.
The adjective cute is often used in slang to refer to human physical beauty or sexual desirability of any kind, not only beauty.
Cuteness in popular culture
Cuteness is a major marketing tool in many cultures. This is most famously the case in Japan, where kawaii, the Japanese term for "cute", is a national obsession. Of course, cuteness is also an important selling point in the West. Elmo, Precious Moments, and many other cultural icons trade on their cuteness—not to mention the overwhelming international success of Japanese imports like Pokémon, Hamtaro or Hello Kitty. Stephen Jay Gould remarked on this phenomenon in an article for Nature, in which he pointed out that over time Mickey Mouse had been drawn more and more to resemble an infant—with bigger head, bigger eyes, and so forth. Gould suggested that this change in Mickey's image was intended to increase his popularity by making him appear cuter.
- Stephen Jay Gould, "Homage to Mickey Mouse", The Panda's Thumb. W.W. Norton & Company, 1980.
- Konrad Lorenz, "Part and Parcel in Animal and Human Societies". in Studies in animal and human behavior, vol. 2. pp. 115-195. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1971 (originally pub. 1950.)
- Physical attractiveness
- Sexual attraction
- Kawaii, a Japanese cultural concept of cuteness
- Discussion of cuteness in Western popular culture
- Kawaii - Cute references
- "Cute Overload!" cuteness rules and imagery blog
- The Cute Factor, New York Times
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