Cute misrepresentations of cause and effect

The science of cute


How cute is that?

‘Our focus on objective affective reactions to identify core hedonic processes takes its lead from Darwin’s original book on emotion over a century ago [12]. Darwin noted distinctive affective expressions (facial, bodily, and autonomic) in humans and animals in various emotional situations. Darwin’s approach is also echoed by Joseph LeDoux’s recent proposal: ‘‘By focusing on survival functions instantiated in conserved circuits, key phenomena relevant to emotions and feelings are discussed with the natural direction of brain evolution in mind (by asking to what extent are functions and circuits that are present in other mammals are also present in humans). . .’’ (p. 654) [9 _]. We similarly suggest that considering animal and human studies together allows the best progress to be made in understanding how affective reactions are mediated by brain systems. (Berridge & Kringelbach, 2013, p. 295)

Many people accept the obvious validity of a scientific approach that considers animal and human studies together.  In their attempts to understand affect, researchers have consistently seen experimental evidence from animal studies that repeatedly falsifies any inference that humans are primarily visual creatures. That experimental evidence also refutes the theory of mutation-initiated natural selection for cuteness. Humans are NOT primarily visual creatures!

No experimental evidence suggests how visually perceived “cuteness” could be naturally selected — except via the association of what we see with olfactory/pheromonal input. Odors and pheromones classically condition the epigenetic effects of multisensory input that are manifested in changes in the physical landscape of DNA in the organized genomes of all species, whether or not the species has eyes or consciousness.

“The ‘affective primacy hypothesis’ [5] asserts that positive and negative affective reactions can be evoked with minimal stimulus input and virtually no cognitive processing. Olfactory signals seem to induce emotional reactions whether or not a chemical stimulus is consciously perceived. We theorize that the importance of human non-verbal signals is based upon information processing, which occurs in the limbic system, and without any cognitive (cortical) assessment. Affect thus does not require conscious interpretation of signal content. Underlying this fact is that affect dominates social interaction and it is the major currency in social interactions [6]. Affective reactions can occur without extensive perceptual and cognitive encoding. They are made with greater confidence than cognitive judgments, and can be made sooner [5, 7]. Olfactory input from the social environment is well adapted to fit such assertions. For example, chemical cues allow humans to select for, and to mate for, traits of reproductive fitness that cannot be assessed simply from visual cues (Kohl, Atzmueller, Fink, & Grammer, 2001).”  

“This model is attractive in that it solves the “binding problem” of sexual attraction. By that I mean the problem of why all the different features of men or women (visual appearance and feel of face, body, and genitals; voice quality, smell; personality and behavior, etc.) attract people as a more or less coherent package representing one sex, rather than as an arbitrary collage of male and female characteristics. If all these characteristics come to be attractive because they were experienced in association with a male- or female-specific pheromone, then they will naturally go together even in the absence of complex genetically coded instructions (LeVay, 2011, p. 210).”

The cute misrepresentations of cause and effect portrayed in the video “The science of cute” exemplify the “affective primacy hypothesis,” but clearly places what is cute in the context of how our food preferences and sexual preferences develop via association with food odor and species specific pheromones. We may classify visually perceived facial features of other animals and infant humans as “cute,” but we do not typically mate with the cute members of other species, or with our food. Other mammals do not mate based on “cute” physical features, either. They mate with conspecifics due to conditioned responses to pheromones that control the physiology of reproduction in all species.They eat foods that are appealing because they smell good, not because they look good.

Thus, I reiterate: “Darwin noted distinctive affective expressions (facial, bodily, and autonomic) in humans and animals in various emotional situations.” Do you think that he thought either natural selection or sexual selection involved any aspect of “cuteness” in other species?


Berridge, K. C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2013). Neuroscience of affect: brain mechanisms of pleasure and displeasure. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23(3), 294–303.

Kohl, J. V., Atzmueller, M., Fink, B., & Grammer, K. (2001). Human pheromones: integrating neuroendocrinology and ethology. Neuro Endocrinol Lett, 22(5), 309-321.

LeVay, S. (2011). Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Orientation: Oxford University Press.


Author: James Kohl

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