It's safe to say that most of the cutest things ever to happen have involved babies, or animals, or preferably baby animals. Tiny living beings, in other words. Or sometimes the tiny hats and knit sweaters and friggin adorable socks these tiny beings wear.

But cute doesn't have to mean alive. Lately designers have rendered cute into a powerful commodity that has little to do with actual little ones. There are cute cars and cute airplanes and cute laptop cases. The Japanese have an entire culture of cuteness–it's called kawaii–complete with cute fashion lines. The commercialization of cuteness has spread to other parts of the world. Jude Law's apparently into it.

So cuteness can be animate or inanimate. The distinction might seem trivial on the surface, but recent evidence suggests our brains appreciate it–and prompt us to behave in different ways as a result. Baby cuteness triggers thoughts of vulnerability and protection that lead to careful actions. So-called "whimsical cuteness," on the other hand, sparks ideas of playfulness and self-reward that make us indulge.

"There are two dimensions of cuteness: the baby cuteness versus this whimsical cuteness," Gergana Nenkov, a marketing scholar at Boston College, tells Co.Design. "They have very different associations."

Baby cuteness–behavioral scientists call it kindchenschema–centers on the irresistible features of tinyhood: the bulging forehead, the big eyes, the puffy cheeks. Studies routinely find that people who see images of baby cuteness feel intense and measurable desires to protect the lil'uns (including puppies and kittens). In this heightened caregiving state, people even display better fine motor skills than they do under normal circumstances.

Take a 2009 study that showed test participants 27 images of puppies and kittens then asked them to play the game Operation. Participants who experienced this avalanche of cuteness did a much better job removing the wish bone and spare ribs and broken heart, etc., compared to those who'd seen neutral images or adult dog and cat images. The authors conclude that "cuteness does not just influence one's willingness to engage in caregiving behaviors but also influences the ability of one to do so."

The science of kindchenschema goes back decades, but the concept of "whimsical cuteness" hadn't been studied until very recently. Nenkov of Boston College, along with Maura Scott of Florida State, suspected cute items might have a very different effect on behavior than cute infants do. They reasoned that whimsically cute items–playful objects or patterns unrelated to living beings–would conjure fun feelings rather than nurturing ones. That should put people in the mood to reward themselves rather than pay careful attention to others.

A series of experiments, described in an upcoming issue of Journal of Consumer Research, suggested Nenkov and Scott were onto something. As a baseline measure of their theory, the researchers conducted an ice cream taste test on 33 participants. Some used a regular ice cream scoop, some used a super cute one shaped like a lady. Those in the cute group scooped themselves significantly more ice cream, despite the fact that the lady scooper actually held less (1.31 ounces, compared to 1.48).

In a later test, Nenkov and Scott showed 119 participants one of three Amazon gift cards: a neutral white card, a cute baby card, and a cute dotted one. The participants made five selections from a list of movies they could use the card to purchase. Some of the movies were lowbrow goofs (e.g. The Avengers, Ted, Hangover II), some high(er)brow (Jane Eyre, The King's Speech, The Artist). Participants with the whimsical dotted card chose more lowbrow movies than those in the baby cute or neutral groups.

"The focus is on rewarding yourself," says Nenkov of whimsical cuteness. "That's what leads you to choose those indulgent choice: more ice cream, more fun movies. With the infant, you're focused on the other entity."

The divergent effects of baby and whimsical cuteness have big implications for designers and marketers, especially as more brands create characters for social media. A bank that wants to promote responsible savings, for instance, might be wiser to showcase a cute baby than a cute piggybank. Things get trickier for products prone to overconsumption. A whimsically cute cupcake campaign might nudge people to eat more — good for companies, not so much for consumers.

It's also possible for the two types of cuteness to counteract one another. In one of Nenkov's tests, participants who looked at a whimsical lion cookie showed less desire for a healthy meal than those who'd seen a regular one. But when these same participants were told the lion cookie came from "The Kid's Cookie Shop," the indulgence disappeared. "Reminding people they're responsible adults eliminates the effect," says Nenkov.

If being responsible means looking at baby socks, who would want to be wild?

[Image: Kitty via Shutterstock]