You feel tenderness when you see someone or something that is cute and/or acting cute, in the sense of adoring because it is small, delicate and/or clumsy. This often applies to small and young animals and humans. For example, you feel tenderness when you see a baby trying to take its first steps; a kitten play with a ball of string; or teenagers in love, awkwardly holding hands. It can also apply to inanimate objects in which case the object represents or reminds you of a living being (for example, stuffed animals), or representations of living beings (for example, handwriting).
Features that evoke this emotion are often physical cues of infancy (such as a high-pitched voice) and behavioral cues of vulnerability or ‘cuteness’ (such as child-like or clumsy behavior1 2). It seems to be of key importance that we perceive the person or thing as delicate, vulnerable, harmless, and defenseless3. Tenderness can even be elicited by the mere sight or thought of a perfectly happy child, because its feebleness, delicacy, obvious incapacity to supply its own needs suggest a need for protection3 4.
Tenderness motivates us toward tender, kind, warm, affectionate, caregiving behavior5 6. Its evolutionary function is to ensure that we care for and interact with our vulnerable offspring. Tenderness makes us love being around them, although they can be objectively seen as rather uninteresting. By staying close to them at all times, we can quickly respond to their current needs (‘She’s hungry, thirsty, cold, etc.’) and predict their future needs (‘He won’t like the fireworks; they’ll be too loud’), provide protection (‘They constantly wander off towards danger’), and encourage their learning and development. Similar feelings towards non-kin children and baby animals can be considered an epiphenomenon.
Tenderness presents itself in typical posture and behavior: people tend to smile and tilt their head sideways. Even though a stereotypic view may predict that women are more prone to tenderness, research is inconclusive about the role of gender in tenderness experience.
Tenderness is synonymous with ‘nurturant love’, which is very close to certain types of affection. They both motivate us to be close to someone we are fond of; however, tenderness is more specific in that it promotes caregiving behavior. Similarly, being moved is associated with warm feelings toward another. Nevertheless, we can be moved by qualities other than cuteness or vulnerability, which are the focus of tenderness. Moreover, being moved motivates us toward passive observation (we take pause, stand still for a moment), as opposed to tenderness that urges us to care for the person/thing of interest.
The so-called ‘kawaii esthetic’ or ‘culture of cuteness’ in Japan builds on eliciting tenderness, and has become a prominent aspect of Japanese popular culture, entertainment, clothing, food, toys, personal appearance, and mannerisms.