This Is Why Tiny Things Make Us So Happy

Welcome to Cuteness Psychology 101.

Have you ever found yourself wandering a store's kitchen supplies section and gravitating toward exceptionally small whisks or spatulas, wondering how anyone could possibly find a use for them—and yet, feeling strangely compelled to buy them? Or maybe you're decidedly not a "baby person," but find yourself letting out an involuntary squeal upon holding your friend's child for the first time and noticing its tiny fingers and toes? If so, you've experienced the effects of cuteness psychology.

The "psychology of cuteness" might sound made up, but it has roots in research going back to 1943. Here's what to know about the science of cuteness and why tiny objects—both natural and artificial—have the ability to make us feel happy and comforted.

The Origins of Cuteness Psychology

Even if you don't recognize his name, you're probably familiar with the work of Konrad Lorenz, a German ethnologist who introduced the concept of the baby schema ("Kindchenschema") in 1943. The "baby schema" is the theory that certain physical features that are typically associated with babies—like a round face and big eyes—are so irresistibly cute to humans they will prompt us to feel a delightful desire to take care of someone or something.

"The psychology of cuteness is the idea that we find things cute when they require parental care," says Amanda Levison, a licensed professional counselor from Neurofeedback & Counseling Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. "This elicits a response to take care of the babies or baby animals that need to be taken care of. Seeing something small and cute stimulates bonding behaviors and the need to take care of it and protect it."

And while this tidy evolutionary explanation makes sense, our attraction to small objects isn't entirely a result of a primitive desire to act as a parent. In fact, more recent research has indicated that our reaction to cuteness isn't necessarily directly related to some sort of instinctual need to nurture, but rather more of a general, positive feeling that can influence how we socially interact with other people. Here are some of the ways that can play out.

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Our Hormones Are at Play

Seeing adorable, big-eyed, baby humans or animals releases oxytocin—aka the "love hormone"—which is involved with forming emotional bonds, explains Varun Choudhary, MD, a board-certified forensic psychiatrist. But this goes beyond laughing babies and yawning puppies and also applies to our affection for all things tiny. When the body releases oxytocin, this "makes us feel in love with the object we are attracted to," says Pareen Sehat, MC, RCC, a registered clinical counselor and certified mental health professional practicing in Vancouver, Canada.

Oxytocin is not the only hormone involved. "Dopamine is one of the most important hormones that trigger happiness and a positive emotional response," Sehat says. "Whenever we see tiny things we find cute and attractive, our brain releases dopamine and makes us feel happy."

This is another example of evolutionary biology at work, according to Sam Von Reiche, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Paramus, New Jersey, and the author of Rethink Your Shrink: The Best Alternatives to Talk Therapy and Meds. "The human brain is designed to love cute, small things by rewarding us with a shot of dopamine—which makes us feel very happy—to help guarantee we will be drawn to our tiny babies and want to take care of and protect them," Von Reiche says. "This ensures their survival and, in turn, the survival of our species."

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Small Things Bring Back the Comforts of Childhood

Nostalgia can be a great source of comfort. "People may experience different emotional reactions to an object depending on the imprinted emotions that may be attached to a memory," Dr. Choudhary says. "For example, a young child receives a Mickey Mouse watch from her parents and later associates tiny Mickey Mouse figurines with a sense of comfort and security."

By the time we're adults, we have decades of experience forming strong emotional attachments with external objects, something Dr. Choudhary says is part of our neurodevelopmental process. "Psychoanalysts call them 'transitional objects' because they are a source of security while we process and understand our world," he explains, noting that these items are usually small, like a doll, blanket, or ball.

But, as we've learned from the plot of every Toy Story movie, there comes a point when children outgrow their playthings. "As we grow older, this need to find external security diminishes as our internal world becomes more prominent," Dr. Choudhary explains.

In times of stress, we return to things that gave us comfort at an early age. It doesn't need to be the exact teddy bear or toy we played with as a child—or even a toy at all. It could be a miniature version of an item. "Subconsciously, we associate tiny objects with the security and comfort they brought us in an earlier time in our lives," he says.

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We Experience Awe and Wonder

Our brains are often drawn to the unique and unusual. "Miniatures—tiny objects—draw our attention because they are extraordinary; the mind knows that the object is highly unusual in size while being familiar in design," says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Sonoma County, California. "Thus, the mind finds the tiny object appealing—cute and adorable—as it evokes a sense of normalcy and oddity at the same time."

There's also the "awe factor," or wondering how in the world something that's usually so big can be made in such a small size. "Seeing a marvel or feat that reminds us how amazing, talented, creative people make us feel good," says Gail Saltz, MD, a psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine. "Seeing something that makes us use our imagination, and is so original [that] it gives us pleasure can, like art, [be] a creative wonder."

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They're Non-Threatening

As humans, we like to feel a sense of control over at least some aspects of our lives (even though, in reality, we don't). This is another part of the appeal of diminutive items, according to Brian Wind, PhD, a clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University. He explains that our fascination with the teeny "could also be linked to the fact that often we have a greater sense of control and power over smaller things."

Along the same lines, Levison points out that we're drawn to "their helplessness [and] inability to pose a threat to us." So not only are tiny things less intimidating, but they can also give us the confidence boost that comes with feeling in control or dominant (even if that feeling is triggered by one of those airplane-sized bottles of Tabasco sauce).

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They're Symbolic Stand-ins for the Real Thing

Some people may gravitate towards miniatures because they don't have the money or access to obtain real-life versions. "While we might not be able to own a live owl, an expensive race car, or a giant statue, a miniature copy can offer incredible emotional rewards," Manly explains.

This is also one of the reasons people purchase (and then gift or collect) small souvenirs when they're out of town. "Certain tiny objects from one's travels—for example, a tiny Eiffel Tower—can bring a sense of connection to important life events and the people who have shared our journey," she adds. "Depending on one's inner needs, a miniature object can bring a sense of pleasure, satisfaction, and even emotional relief."

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  1. Luo L, Ma X, Zheng X, et al. Neural systems and hormones mediating attraction to infant and child facesFront Psychol. 2015;6:970. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00970

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