Ayesha Azeem ’23
Observing something “cute” facilitates communication, as perceiving cuteness narrows perceptual attention and makes it difficult to focus on peripheral vision. Previous research has indicated that female reproductive hormones allow women to be more sensitive and attuned to perceiving cuteness. Because women have historically played the role of primary caregiver, evolutionary psychology suggests that cuteness motivates people to raise a child, which may explain why women are more sensitive to this trait. Research has also indicated that an observer’s pupil size enlarges when looking at what interests them. While babies are often associated with cuteness, objects can also be perceived as cute. Drs. Kuraguchi and Kanari of Osaka and Utsunomiya University, respectively, investigated whether the perception of cuteness itself causes the pupil response using photographs of animals to study the relationship between perceived cuteness and pupillary response.
The researchers studied whether the subjective judgment of cuteness correlates with the pupillary response and whether the correlation is consistent for human faces and non-face images like animals. The study solely included women as participants for their broader range in recognition of “cute” objects. 22 Japanese females between the ages of 18 and 24 years were asked to assess the cuteness of different objects, including animals, food, flowers, landscapes, stuffed animals, and bags. They also looked at pictures of adult female faces.
The researchers found a significant positive correlation between perceived cuteness for non-human images and change in pupil size, suggesting that perceiving cuteness enlarges the pupil. The researchers also found a significant negative correlation between perceived cuteness for female face images and change in pupil size, suggesting that the pupil is enlarged when observing less cute faces in particular. A possible explanation is that less cute faces may trigger negative emotions in the observer, which may lead to pupil dilation. It is also possible that other complex emotions, like jealousy, were evoked simultaneously when the participants looked at adult female faces. Additionally, the correlation between the cuteness rating and the magnitude of pupil response differed between evaluation objects; for cuter objects, observers’ pupils were generally more dilated, but less so for adult female faces. Overall, this study shows how unconscious physical reactions like pupil responses occur when judging cuteness. Future studies should focus on the effects of cuteness and emotional arousal on unconscious physical responses.
 K. Kuraguchi, K. Kanari, Enlargement of female pupils when perceiving something cute. Scientific Reports 11, 23367 (2021). doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-02852-5.