Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgWhat makes children so cute? Is it their adorably soft skin? Their innocently mischievous smiles? Their oversized eyes and tiny little mouths? Why is it that some kids are singled out for TV commercials and child beauty pageants, while others don’t seem to be noteworthy in any way?

Attractiveness in children isn’t trivial — teachers believe more attractive students are more intelligent, and are less likely to punish them for misbehavior. There are also gender differences: Teachers give better grades to attractive girls, but worse grades to attractive boys.

Most studies about cuteness have focused on photographs of children. For example, in the grading study I mentioned above, photos of attractive and unattractive kids were included with essays to be graded by teachers. But when a Japanese team led by Reiko Koyama asked 38 volunteers to tell them what made a child cute, many of the responses were focused on actions: When a child shares with a friend, or imitates adult behavior, or hides in shame, all these things are seen as cute. Out of 148 different examples of cuteness, the researchers selected the 29 most reliable factors, which they divided into four categories: Childlike behavior, physical cuteness, imitating adults, or invoking protective feeling in others.

Since so many of the dimensions of cuteness involved actions, instead of using photos, the researchers created several videos showing either a boy or a girl, doing typically boyish or girlish activities: playing baseball (boyish) or playing house (girlish). In a seemingly bizarre twist, both the boy and the girl were filmed in each clip twice: once while dressed as a boy (with short hair and a baseball cap) and once while dressed as a girl (with a long-hair wig and no hat), for a total of eight different videos.

The videos were shown to 72 parents of small children and 84 childless college students. Each viewer saw just four of the eight videos, so that they never saw the same child dressed as both a boy and a girl. One group of viewers, for example, saw the boy dressed as a boy and the girl dressed as a girl, while another group saw both the boy and the girl dressed as girls. All viewers rated each video for cuteness on a scale of 0 to 4 along the 29 dimensions the researchers had previously identified.

Here are some of the results:


The ratings for the boy and girl were nearly identical for the Childish Behavior and Invoking Protective Urge. But the girl was rated significantly higher for Physical Cuteness while the boy was rated significantly higher for Imitating Adults. What’s more, when the boy was dressed as a girl, his advantage in Imitating Adults disappeared. When the boy was dressed as a girl and the girl was dressed as a boy, the boy was rated higher for physical cuteness than the girl.

There was also a difference in the ratings of parents and those of the childless students. Parents felt children were cuter when they imitated adult behavior and invoked the adult protective urge, and less cute simply due to physical attractiveness and childish behavior. Among the students, there was no significant difference in their cuteness ratings across the different dimensions of cuteness.

So it appears that cuteness involves much more than just physical appearance of a child: the child’s gender roles play a part, as do the parenting roles of the people doing the rating. Perhaps more importantly, Koyama’s team’s research calls into question much of the earlier work linking a child’s attractiveness to other social behaviors such as teachers’ grading. If physical actions are important in determining a child’s cuteness, then perhaps simply finding an association between photographs of kids and adult behavior towards those kids doesn’t offer much insight into how adults will treat the kids in real life.

Koyama, R., Takahashi, Y., Mori, K. (2006). ASSESSING THE CUTENESS OF CHILDREN: SIGNIFICANT FACTORS AND GENDER DIFFERENCES. Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal, 34(9), 1087-1099. DOI: 10.2224/sbp.2006.34.9.1087


  1. #1 razib
    March 10, 2008

    i wuz expecting pictures….

  2. #2 Alvin
    March 10, 2008

    There may exist a cultural difference in terms of what constitutes “cuteness” in children; perhaps actions do indeed speak louder than words, but I assume the volunteers in this study were also of Japanese descent. Outward appearance may be more significant in different cultural contexts.

    Moreover, the child’s wardrobe may have impacted their behaviors somewhat, especially for the boys. I know most little boys wouldn’t be too ecstatic about putting on a pink dress, which may have contributed to their loss of “cuteness” under the imitating adults criteria (and also explains why it failed to negatively impact physical attractiveness, which does not rely on behavior cues).

    (Also saw a couple of confusing typos; corrections in brackets: “both the boy and the girl [were] filmed [in] each clip twice,” and “When the [boy was] dressed as a girl and the girl was dressed as a boy” — looks like we need more chocolate Dave! ;-))

  3. #3 Dave Munger
    March 11, 2008


    Yes, there could very well be cultural differences — good point. Thanks for the correction — I’ve fixed it now.

  4. #4 jetkestrel
    March 12, 2008

    Actually, I suspect that the cultural differences would have made the children more willing to accept dressing up in opposite-gendered costume; there’s a very strong Japanese dramatic tradition of men dressing as women for classical acting (e.g. Noh or kabuki plays) or comedy (half the variety shows on Japanese public television). I am an American who teaches at a Japanese middle school, and was quite surprised during my first year to learn that the students had a cross-dressing competition during one of their yearly field trips.

    On the other hand, it’s also possible that being dressed up would make the children try to imitate the cross-dressing examples they may have seen on television — mostly comedians — which could indeed have had an effect on their behavior.

    This is a study that I’d love to see done in different cultural contexts. I suspect that the adults’ different evaluation of “cuteness” based on gender may also have a socializing effect, particularly since other research indicates that “cuteness” positively affects adult reward-giving.

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