The Power of Kawaii: How Cute, Squishy Things Influence Us

This year has been anything but cute. It’s been occasionally optimistic, but mostly unpredictable, tumultuous, and painful. But cute? Far from it.

Enter the timeline cleanse. You may have seen them: social media photos, typically of adorable animals or babies, meant to disrupt your feed. The unrelenting news cycle that plays out on social media—and in our personal lives—can leave us dispirited and desensitized. A timeline cleanse is meant to interrupt that cycle with a reprieve from the chaos.

“I think kawaii, or cute feelings, reminds us of human connection that we sometimes forget,” says Hiroshi Nittono, director of the Cognitive Psychophysiology Laboratory at Osaka University.

Nittono is a kawaii researcher—that is, he studies the Japanese concept of cuteness and how we experience it. His research has found that looking at kawaii images, like photos of puppies or kittens (or baby alpacas, perhaps?) helps us focus and pay attention to detail, improves our attention, and leads to better task performance.

“Kawaii things not only make us happier but also affect our behavior,” Nittono’s original 2012 study reported.

In Western culture, we’ve come to think of kawaii as a synonym for cute. In Japan, where the kawaii aesthetic has been its own pop culture phenomenon for decades, the word is a bit more complex. Nittono says the Japanese word kawaii was originally an affective adjective that expressed one’s feelings toward an object. “In Japanese, we can say ‘feel kawaii,’” he adds. Visually, kawaii is tied to what researchers call baby schema—a large head, round face, and big eyes—but kawaii involves the other senses too. In a paper published in the journal Universal Access, researchers reported that people also label certain sounds as cute, and those sounds tend to be high pitched, like the chirp of a baby bird. Kawaii isn’t always what we would traditionally describe as cute, either. Ugly or strange looking things can also elicit kawaii feelings, a concept referred to as kimo-kawaii, or “gross cute.”

Put simply, Nittono says, kawaii is the “cute emotion” you experience in the presence of something that triggers that emotion. Kawaii is what compels you to pinch a baby’s cheeks or snuggle a puppy. Kawaii also influences our feelings and behavior in other ways, he says. It has a calming and healing effect, for instance. It also makes us soft—more malleable and open to requests.

Kawaii not only makes you want to physically embrace the cute thing, it also activates an instinctive need to protect it. And this protective feeling may be why kawaii makes us more attentive and focused on tasks. In a 2009 study, participants performed better on a careful task (the electronic board game Operation) when they were shown cute images. In his own research, Nittono and his colleagues discovered similar findings. “Viewing cute images of baby animals elicits a motivation to act tenderly and responsibly to protect them,” he explains. “This idea holds that weak and defenseless but cute entities trigger caregiving behavior in the beholder.” Cute things make us feel protective, and when we’re protective, we might be naturally more focused, present, and attentive.

Nittono’s research hypothesizes that cuteness might trigger something called approach motivation, which is an impulse toward a positive stimulus. Approach motivation allows us to focus better on systematic processes that require us to be careful, like driving, completing tasks at work, or playing a game of Operation.

Engineers, advertisers, and developers have taken advantage of this phenomenon, using kawaii to manipulate user experience and consumer behavior. Researchers call it cute engineering. It’s a way to harness positive feelings and emotions to “motivate, engage and shape the user’s behavior in a positive way,” writes Owen Noel Newton Fernando, a senior lecturer at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Sometimes cute engineering is subtle, but it’s often quite obvious. Engineers use kawaii in the field of robotics, for instance—the cuter the robot, the more humans will want to engage with it.

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