Irresistible cuteness, in pictures and videos online, is overwhelming America, says Jim Windolf in December's Vanity Fair. Office workers gather around YouTube videos of toddler antics, the Mini-Cooper has been out-cuted by the Smart Car, and the website Cute Overload (filled with pictures of puppies, kitties, and bunnies) gets 100,000 hits a day.

Part of this new addiction is as ancient as our human nature, Windolf writes. Ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed in the 1940s that we naturally want to care for any small, vulnerable creature. "Lorenz suggested that infantile characteristics—big head, big eyes, the very round face—stimulate caretaking behavior," Marina Cords, a professor of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology at Columbia University, told Windolf.

Then why, if we've always been attracted to adorable infants, is the cuteness craze gaining ground now?

Part of it is certainly the accessibility. Thousands of websites and e-mail forwards offer the goods. Bored with a work project or with doing laundry? Pop onto the Internet or your phone for a quick pick-me-up.

Another part of it, according to Windolf, may be our collective unhappiness—lengthy wars on two fronts and a struggling economy. He points to Japan, where he says cuteness took hold in the post-war 1940s and 1950s, influenced heavily by Disney's Bambi and Fantasia. Now big-eyed, infantile anime characters can be found almost everywhere in Japan, from airplanes to condoms to ATM cards (and, as Her.meneutics blogger Lisa Graham McMinn covered, on body pillows made to look like young girls). "Cuteness in Japanese culture" even has its own Wikipedia entry.

Cuteness as an antidote to social unhappiness—there's something to that. Photos of ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.