Nathan Myhrvold – Why do we think things are cute?

Nathan Myhrvold While in the Falkland Islands he saw some birds and started wondering why we think things are cute or not. Human children have many features of cuteness.

  • Head large for body
  • Rounded features
  • Eyes too large for head
  • Long eye lashes
  • Wide set eyes
  • Dilated pupils
  • Small nose
  • Large hadnds with stubby fingers
  • Fuzzy or furry. Chubby Cheeks.

If you’ve ever had a child, they’re also impossibly annoying. If you didn’t think they were gosh-darned cute, they’d no longer be around. That’s not just true for humans, it’s true for mamels. He’s going through pictures demonstrating some of these characteristics. (I wonder if all these photographs are his? They’re great.)

I missed the name of the bird, but it’s definitely something that isn’t cute:

  • Small head
  • sharp features
  • beady eyes
  • no eye lashes
  • no cheeks
  • long neck

In short – snake with wings. They may be beautiful, but not cute. Even baby crocodiles aren’t cute, unlike many young in different species. They don’t have distorted features relative to the body, they’re just small versions of adult crocodiles.

It’s likely that we have a common conception of what’s cute because they have a common inheretence, something that was involved in the evolution of species that can’t support themselves when they’re young.

Most people are between 5-6 heads high. Shrek is 4 heads high. 4 heads high isn’t as extreme as a baby, which is 2.5-3 heads high, but Shrek has those proportions because he’s supposted to be lovable. We’re not supposted to love Prince Charming, and he’s 7 heads high. If you look at classic comic books, heroes are 8-9 heads high, they’re pinheads!

He’s showing 4 penguins from a movie. (He’s on the board of Dreamworks.) Knit brows, narrow set eyes – serious penguin. Open brows, wide set eyes, the goof. Even tigher brows, half closed eyes, narrow set, large nose, the boss./skipper. Open bros, very wide-set eyes — the clueless one.

He was on a safari and saw a lioness who had one eye that was enormously enlarged and blue. Most lions are right-handed. If you’re right-handed, you’re more likely to approach from the right side, and you’re more likely to be injured there.

He did a demo wiht modifying Dick Cheney’s face to make it cuter, I got a picture:

Cute Dick Cheney

“If I can get you to think, even for a second, that Dick Cheney might be a little cuter, it shows how strong those evolutionary biases are.”

We’re hard-wired with hundreds, maybe thousands of these built-in notions. Art and architecture try to figure some of that out, usually it’s more difficult because there’s nothing as obvious to compare to as that baby we saw in the beginning. If you come to EG in twenty years, there’s a real opportunity to learn more about how those things work, and inform the visual arts in a quantative way like we never have before.

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