6 Reasons Why We Love Small, Cute Things, According to Science

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iStock

The feeling that something is cute can be hard to explain, especially from a scientific standpoint. While more than 1000 research studies have been conducted on emotions such as fear, fewer than 10 have focused on what we think is “cute”—despite the prevalence of cuteness in marketing, fashion, and design. One thing we do know: Cuteness is connected to size, and small things are far more likely to be considered cute (and squeezable) than large ones are. Here's what science has to say about why we're drawn to all things "smol"—whether they're puppies, kittens, babies, dollhouses, tiny foods, or figurines—and the effect they have on us.

1. WE'RE NURTURERS BY NATURE …

orange and white kitten sits next to brown and white puppy
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In 1943, Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz, one of the founding fathers of ethology (animal behavior), proposed that features like a rounded head, small size, and big eyes—what are called neotenic, or baby-animal, characteristics—promote parental care. This nurturing response can serve to enhance offspring survival, and has been described as a fundamental function of human social cognition. Recent studies have extended the concept of cuteness to auditory and olfactory cues (baby laughter, or that amazing new baby smell) that prompt affection and caregiving.

Interestingly, some research suggests that we don’t just think that small things are cute, but also that cute things are smaller than their actual size. For instance, mothers misperceive their youngest kids as much shorter than they are in reality, an illusion that may result in their allocating greater care and resources to the last-born child.

2. … AND SMALL THINGS MAKE US ACT WITH CARE.

miniature garden furniture with tea service and flowers
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Cuteness motivates us to protect the object of our affection, turning us into focused, gentle caretakers. In a 2009 study, scientists reported that participants that viewed very cute images of puppies and kittens performed better in the children’s game Operation than participants that saw less cute images of dogs and cats. Subsequent research, by Hiroshi Nittono and his colleagues at Hiroshima University in Japan, found that cuteness improves our performance at times when we need to be careful: Flimsy tiny furniture and other miniature collectibles may seem cute because we know that they could break unless we handle them delicately.

3. WE LIKE THAT THEY CAN'T HURT US.

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Cuteness in human infants has been linked to their helplessness. Small objects, by virtue of their size, tend to pose little danger. “One of the critical features that make a thing cute is the absence of feeling threatened. Small things are likely to meet this condition,” Nittono tells Mental Floss.

4. WE LOVE TOYS, NO MATTER OUR AGE.

fiat toy car against blue sky background
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Cuteness extends to inanimate objects such as dolls and other toys. Teddy bears have changed over time to look cuter and more baby-like, and a similar anthropomorphic process has affected the "faces" of cars. Miniatures may look cute, in addition, because we connect them with toys and child play. Because young children are cute, their toys and other possessions may become cute by association.

Of course, big things can be cute as well, Nittono says, especially if they possess other baby-like characteristics: “You may find a big, human-sized teddy bear to be cute—sometimes cuter than a small one.”

5. WE WANT TO BE IN CONTROL.

miniature lounge in dollhouse
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As Bustle reported, miniature dollhouses and buildings allow their owners to escape into scenarios that are vastly different from their everyday lives, and which they can command completely. “The famous psychologist Dr. Ruth,” writes JR Thorpe, “had a therapy dollhouse with which she helped children to work through serious issues.” The houses were also beneficial for the doctor herself because they “represented a control that she, as a child refugee fleeing the Nazis, had lacked.”

6. THEY'RE LOADED WITH COMPLEX DETAILS OUR BRAINS ARE DRAWN TO.

multicolored russian nesting dolls
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Miniatures are compact: They condense lots of intricate visuals within a very limited space. That richness of features makes them highly appealing to our senses. Research has shown that our gaze—and likely our touch too—is drawn to the regions of a scene or object that hold the most information. Part of our attraction to miniatures may be that they provide our sensory-seeking brains with highly concentrated dosages of tantalizing stimulation.

This Outdoor Lantern Will Keep Mosquitoes Away—No Bug Spray Necessary

Thermacell, Amazon
Thermacell, Amazon

With summer comes outdoor activities, and with those activities come mosquito bites. If you're one of the unlucky people who seem to attract the insects, you may be tempted to lock yourself inside for the rest of the season. But you don't have to choose between comfort and having a cocktail on the porch, because this lamp from Thermacell ($25) keeps outdoor spaces mosquito-free without the mess of bug spray.

The device looks like an ordinary lantern you would display on a patio, but it works like bug repellent. When it's turned on, a fuel cartridge in the center provides the heat needed to activate a repellent mat on top of the lamp. Once activated, the repellent in the mat creates a 15-by-15-foot bubble of protection that repels any mosquitos nearby, making it a great option for camping trips, days by the pool, and backyard barbecues.

Mosquito repellent lantern.

Unlike some other mosquito repellents, this lantern is clean, safe, and scent-free. It also provides light like a real lamp, so you can keep pests away without ruining your backyard's ambience.

The Thermacell mosquito repellent lantern is now available on Amazon. If you've already suffered your first mosquito bites of the summer, here's some insight into why that itch can be so excruciating.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Map Shows How Everyone Blamed Syphilis on Everyone Else

Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse by Rembrandt van Rijn. De Lairesse, a painter and art theorist, had congenital syphilis that deformed his face and eventually blinded him.
Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse by Rembrandt van Rijn. De Lairesse, a painter and art theorist, had congenital syphilis that deformed his face and eventually blinded him.
Gerard de Lairesse, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The origins of syphilis may be one of the greatest (and grossest) health mysteries of our time. Some historians claim that Christopher Columbus and his sailors contracted the sexually transmitted disease in the New World and brought it back to Europe. Other experts believe that the disease, which is caused by the bacterium Treponema pallidum, existed in various forms around the globe but was simply misclassified as other conditions. (European writers, including Italian historian Niccolo Squillaci, first described syphilis in the late 15th century.) And in 2015, researchers announced that they had identified signs of congenital syphilis in 14th-century skeletons from St. Polten, Austria, adding new evidence to an ages-old debate.

One thing's for sure: As the map below illustrates, nobody wanted to take credit for originating the virulent condition. Created by Redditor masiakasaurus (and spotted by The A.V. Club), the map illustrates the various nicknames Europeans gave the disease before the name syphilis caught on. (Italian physician and poet Hieronymus Fracastorius coined the word in 1530 with his poem "Syphilis Sive Morbus Gallicus" ("Syphilis or the French Disease"). Not surprisingly, nearly every single moniker used for the disease places blame on another group for giving birth to what by then had become a continental scourge.

“Most physicians felt that this was a new disease, that it hadn’t been seen before in Europe, and that view tended to prevail for quite some time,” medical historian John Parascandola told The Atlantic in 2016. “There were certain tempting reasons for people to accept that—blame it on the others, blame it on the outsiders. Before that, the French were blaming it on the Italians, the Italians were blaming it on the French, et cetera.”

Masiakasaurus sourced the syphilis nicknames from nine scholarly books/journals, including The Early History of Syphilis: A Reappraisal,The rise and fall of sexually transmitted diseases in Sweden, and A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate: From the Earliest Times Until the Year A.D. 1932. You can view the full list on Reddit—after giving silent thanks to Alexander Fleming for discovering penicillin, found to be an effective cure for syphilis in 1943.

[h/t The A.V. Club]