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Psychology of Kawaii

A lecture at ACP2017 is available on Youtube (March 23, 2017).


Kawaii is a key concept that characterizes modern Japanese culture. It is often translated as “cute,” but a subtle difference of nuance exists between the two words.

Recently, I have proposed a two-layer model of kawaii as an empirical research framework for understanding kawaii from a behavioral science perspective.

This model postulates that the basis of kawaii is a positive emotion related to the social motivation of protecting and nurturing others, which originally stems from affection toward babies and infants. It also assumes that this culture-independent, biological trait has been amplified by certain characteristics of Japanese culture, such as amae (behavior or motivation to gain others’ love and acceptance) and chizimi shikou (orientation toward smallness/miniatures).

Using this framework and psychophysiological techniques, we are now conducting several empirical studies to address questions including

  1. the similarities and differences between the feeling of kawaii toward babies and the feeling of kawaii toward nonliving things,
  2. the differences between the kawaii feeling and other positive feelings,
  3. the behavioral changes that occur after encountering kawaii things, and
  4. the cultural and individual differences in the scope of kawaii and in attitudes toward kawaii things.

You can see the gist of our framework and the summary of three surveys of 685 Japanese university students about kawaii in the following paper.

Nittono, H. (2010). A behavioral science framework for understanding kawaii. Proceedings of the Third International Workshop on Kansei (Fukuoka, 2010.2.22-23). pp. 80-83.

Nittono, H. (2016). The two-layer model of “kawaii”: A behavioural science framework for understanding kawaii and cuteness. East Asian Journal of Popular Culture2(1), 79-95. doi:10.1386/eapc.2.1.79_1 *OPEN ACCESS*

This is the latest integrative review paper on my two-layer model of kawaii. It is published on a special issue “Cute Studies” (April 2016).

Kawaii as an emoiton

In this paper, I argue that kawaii is not a response to the baby schema. Rather, it is an emotion that is induced by various factors, and the baby schema is just an example. Moreover, I propose that, because previous research on cuteness has been almost exclusively associated with infant physical attractiveness and baby schema, using the relatively fresh, exotic word kawaii may be helpful to describe this broader psychological concept.

My PLoS ONE paper is the first academic paper with the title word “kawaii” among more than 22 milion citations indexed in PubMed!

Nittono, H., Fukushima, M., Yano, A., & Moriya, H. (2012). The power of kawaii: Viewing cute images promotes a careful behavior and narrows attentional focusPLoS ONE7(9), e46362.

This paper describes three experiments by which we demonstrated that viewing cute things makes us more attantive and focused on the details of the objects.

Media Coverage reported by PLOS ONE (over 70 articles)

My own writings: The Conversation (October 5, 2012), Adapt International Bulletin (No. 32/2012)

Cross-cultural collaborations are welcome! If you are interested in, please contact me via e-mail at info [at] cplnet.jp.

Other English papers published

  1. Nittono, H., Lieber-Milo, S., & Dale, J. P. (in press). Cross-cultural comparisons of the cute and related concepts in Japan, the United States, and Israel. SAGE Open. [Preprint]
  2. Yoshikawa, N., Nittono, H., & Masaki, H. (2020). Effects of viewing cute pictures on quiet eye duration and fine motor task performance. Frontiers in Psychology, section Movement Science and Sport Psychology11:1565. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01565 (July 2020)
  3. Lieber-Milo, S., & Nittono, H. (2019). How the Japanese term kawaii is perceived outside of Japan: A study in Israel. SAGE Open9(3), 1-7. doi:10.1177/2158244019869904 (August 2019)
  4. Nittono, H. & Ihara, N. (2017). Psychophysiological responses to kawaii pictures with or without baby schema. SAGE Open7(2), 1-11. doi:10.1177/2158244017709321 (May 2017)
  5. Komori, M., & Nittono, H. (2013). Influence of age-independent facial traits on adult judgments of cuteness and infantility of a child’s face. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences97(6), 285-291. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2013.10.235 (November 2013)
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