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Cuteness in offspring is a potent protective mechanism that ensures survival for otherwise completely dependent infants. Previous research has linked cuteness to early ethological ideas of a 'Kindchenschema' (infant schema) where infant facial features serve as 'innate releasing mechanisms' for instinctual caregiving behaviours. We propose extending the concept of cuteness beyond visual features to include positive infant sounds and smells. Evidence from behavioural and neuroimaging studies links this extended concept of cuteness to simple 'instinctual' behaviours and to caregiving, protection, and complex emotions. We review how cuteness supports key parental capacities by igniting fast privileged neural activity followed by slower processing in large brain networks also involved in play, empathy, and perhaps even higher-order moral emotions.

Original publication




Journal article


Trends in cognitive sciences

Publication Date





545 - 558


Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX3 7JX, UK; Center for Music in the Brain (MIB), Aarhus University, Aarhus, Denmark. Electronic address: