Sun, Jan 08, 2006 - Page 17 News List

How 'kawaii'!

Cuteness is not the same as beauty, researchers say, emphasizing rounded over sculptured, soft over refined, clumsy over quick. Cuteness needs affection and a lap

By Natalie Angier  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

PHOTO: AP

If the mere sight of Tai Shan, the roly-poly, goofily gamboling masked bandit of a panda cub now on view at the US National Zoo isn't enough to make you melt, then maybe the crush of his human onlookers, the furious flashing of their cameras and the heated gasps of their mass rapture will do the trick.

Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still-expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute.

What features and behaviors do think make something look cute?

Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say.

"Omigosh, look at him! He is too cute!"

"How adorable! I wish I could just reach in there and give him a big squeeze!"

"He's so fuzzy! I've never seen anything so cute in my life!"

A guard's sonorous voice rises above the burble. "OK, folks, five oohs and aahs per person, then it's time to let someone else step up front."

The six-month-old, 11kg Tai Shan -- whose name means "peaceful mountain" -- is the first surviving giant panda cub ever born at the Smithsonian's zoo. And though the zoo's adult pandas have long been among Washington's top tourist attractions, the public debut of the baby last month has unleashed an almost bestial frenzy here. Some 13,000 timed tickets to see the cub were snapped up within two hours of being released, and almost immediately began trading on eBay for up to US$200 a pair.

Pandemonium

Panda mania is not the only reason that last year proved an exceptionally cute year. Last summer, a movie about another black-and-white charmer, the emperor penguin, became one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time. Sales of petite, willfully cute cars like the Toyota Prius and the Mini Cooper soared, while those of noncute sport utility vehicles tanked.

Women's fashions opted for the cute over the sensible or glamorous, with low-slung slacks and skirts and abbreviated blouses contriving to present a customer's midriff as an adorable preschool bulge. Even the too big could be too cute. King Kong's newly reissued face has a squashed baby-doll appeal and his passion for Naomi Watts ultimately feels like a serious case of puppy love -- hopeless, heartbreaking, cute.

Scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others.

Cute cues are those that indicate extreme youth, vulnerability, harmlessness and need, scientists say, and attending to them closely makes good Darwinian sense. As a species whose youngest members are so pathetically helpless they can't lift their heads to suckle without adult supervision, human beings must be wired to respond quickly and gamely to any and all signs of infantile desire.

The human cuteness detector is set at such a low bar, researchers said, that it sweeps in and deems cute practically anything remotely resembling a human baby or a part thereof, and so ends up including the young of virtually every mammalian species, fuzzy-headed birds like Japanese cranes, woolly bear caterpillars, a bobbing balloon, a big round rock stacked on a smaller rock, a colon, a hyphen and a close parenthesis typed in succession.

This story has been viewed 15102 times.
TOP top