Why Do We Love Tiny Things? The Psychology Behind It Is Complex

Ad failed to load

As a kid, and a tween, I was a huge dollhouse fan, with an obsession for tiny things. I had, at one point, three, all fully (if chaotically) decorated with mixes of expensive mock-oak furniture from the pricey toy store in my city's fanciest shopping arcade, knock-offs from catalogues, and things I'd rigged myself. My dad and I created an entire house's frontage out of cardboard; I decorated the walls with wallpaper samples and stuck carpet offcuts on the floors. There is no easier way to guarantee that a girl will keep out of trouble, and lack dates for years, than encouraging her to make dollhouse paintings out of magazine pictures and gold foil "frames" on her weekends. I didn't care.

Even though I'm now an adult — and married to a man who collected miniature art in his own teens — I still get a twitch of acquisitiveness every time I pass a shop window featuring a wardrobe that could fit into the palm of my hand, or a pot plant with leaves almost too small to see. And I'm not alone; while many parts of the U.S. toy industry are shrinking, dolls and their accoutrements are only becoming more popular, according to the American Toy Association. Which begs the question: Why are we so obsessed with the idea of tiny things that can be easily lost, broken or swallowed by a confused pet?

The psychology of society's love for dollhouses and miniatures is intriguing, and dates back centuries. Dollhouses weren't originally conceived as toys; when they arrived on the scene in the 17th century across Germany and Holland, they weren't even for children. I've seen many of these lavish baby-houses, as they were called, in museums; they were objects for wealthy adult women to fill with prized, expensive creations, and weren't necessarily meant to be touched. The first "playing" dollhouses were kitchens, with pans the size of your thumb and copper kettles, designed as instructive aids to show small girls how to keep house. It was only when girls presumably rebelled and started having fun that the idea of the miniature abode really took hold as an object of play.

Ad failed to load

So where does the appeal come in? We start to attribute voices and ideas to miniature people and objects when we're about four to six, according to psychological studies. (Before that, we're more likely to throw them or stick them up our noses.) From that point, miniatures can grip many of us with fervor, and in some cases develop into adult obsessions. From miniature artists who create fantastic new worlds in tiny scales to grandmothers scouring the tables at the local miniatures fair, it's a business that attracts many different types and approaches. And there's considerable behavioral nuance behind our love for the very small.

Miniature things invite respect for their craftsmanship and the daintiness of their construction, but that's only a small aspect of their appeal. Part of the fantasy of miniature houses and their accessories — diminutive cribs, teapots the size of a fingernail, filigree Faberge eggs you could fit on the head of a pin — is is that they offer an alternative life. Rather like the The Sims, which offers users the chance to build and decorate their virtual dream homes in unimaginable opulence (and with which I, as a small girl, was also obsessed), dollhouses, experts believe, give people places to build the lives they will never be able to experience in full-size. A Rembrandt in the living room is perfectly achievable when it's the size of a postage stamp.

Ad failed to load

People are willing to spend what looks like monumental amounts of money for hand-carved or highly ornate pieces of miniature furniture, ones they'll never be able to afford at human scale. Margo Kaufman, writing in the LA Times about dollhouse lovers in 1995, wrote wonderingly, "Hobbyists confined by unreal Los Angeles real estate prices to one-bedroom apartments can own a street of Georgian, Victorian, French Regency and antebellum properties. Prim homemakers oversee bordellos. One mini maven, perhaps a tad over-influenced by The Diary of Anne Frank, has built a secret annex to her dollhouse to hide a Jewish family, complete with a miniature rabbi and a Passover Seder table." People's real estate ideals take all shapes and sizes: the fabulous 1920s Stettheimer dollhouse, created by a wealthy socialite in New York, is a modernist dream featuring custom-made artwork by Marcel Duchamp, and there's a rise in popularity for houses that look like modern abodes complete with trash cans.

Even the fabulously wealthy can use dollhouses as dreamlands. Colleen Moore, a silent film star of the 1930s, constructed a literal castle that counts among the most ornate dollhouses ever made. It's only really challenged by Queen Mary's Dollhouse, a five-storey marvel which is on display on Windsor Castle and is filled with mind-blowing miniatures like custom-written books by Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, all gifted to the Queen in 1924. Those who have everything can still, in the world of the dollhouse, get the unimaginable on a microscopic scale. The dream can also leap time and space. Dollhouse miniature manufacturers find perennial interest in old-fashioned and obsolete items (butter churns, sewing machines, inch-high copies of Mrs Beeton's Household Management). If you can't visit the past, you can create it in your living room.

Ad failed to load
CBS Sunday Morning on YouTube

Dollhouses and the miniature also offer safe environments for darker explorations. Forensic investigation at the beginning of the 20th century was greatly influenced by the work of a woman named Frances Glessner Lee, an expert in forensic science who taught crime scene detection skills through meticulously recreating crime scenes as doll-scale dioramas. The New York Times, reporting on the craze for "miniacs" in 2016, reported collectors who specialize in tiny pistols that actually fire, miniature skulls and working electric chairs.

The reason for this interest may be tied to the fact that, in psychological terms, dollhouses and miniature play are safe spaces that encourage total control. "For children," the antiques expert Eve Kahn wrote for the New York Times in 1994, "doll houses can make the universe seem obedient." If your own environment is chaotic, poverty-stricken, miserable, beset with domestic woes or traumatic, dollhouses offer the direct opposite: a universe entirely at your command. The famous psychologist Dr. Ruth had a therapy dollhouse with which she helped children to work through serious issues. It also, she told NPR in 2016, represented a control that she, as a child refugee fleeing the Nazis, had lacked. “I had no control over my life. I did not want to leave Germany; I did not want to go to Switzerland. With the dollhouses, I have control. I put the parents, and they stay there. I put the children, and they’re going to stay there."

Ad failed to load

I'm old enough now to decorate my own rented house with full-size bits and pieces, but I admit to an occasional bit of disappointment that things somehow always get dusty, spilt, or covered in letters from the council — in other words, far from the dollhouses of my childhood, where everything was perfectly arranged and the butler was always in the hallway holding a tray of cakes. In a world where most millennials can't even think of getting on the real property ladder, it's no real wonder that dollhouses remain, for many of us, a gentle bit of wish fulfilment.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

I Wore 'Dad Shoes' For A Week & They Were SO Much Cooler Than I Thought They’d Be

It’s no secret that fashion loves a good polarizing trend. Not too long ago, Birkenstocks made their high fashion runway appearance at Céline and Crocs followed suit on the runways of Christopher Kane and Balenciaga. Now, it’s time for the "ugly" sne…
By Dale Arden Chong

7 Surprising Things That Happened When I Went A Month Without Drinking

If someone asked you if you could take a break from drinking alcohol, would you be able to do it? You may think it’s no big deal to take a month off from drinking, or you may think it’s a *huge* deal, as alcohol seems to be the center of many social …
By Natalia Lusinski

5 Books Under 300 Pages That Are Perfect For St. Patrick's Day Weekend Reading

The grocery stores are stocked with corned beef and cabbage, the local pubs are starting to advertise a particular shade of beer, and in city streets all across America, signs about parade routes have been posted for everyone to see, so you know what…
By Sadie Trombetta

8 Ways Younger Millennials Communicate That Older Millennials Don’t Get

When comparing the ways our parents grew up communicating and the way we all grew up communicating, it seems like their generation and ours grew up in a different world. The technology our parents grew up with was so basic, it's ancient in comparison…
By Kaitlyn Wylde

This Is The ONE Sign That Won’t Be Affected By Mercury Retrograde This Month

It really doesn't seem fair that one astrological sign can ever enjoy the benefit of escaping the wrath of Mercury retrograde — that is, of course, unless that sign is your own — but it happens. Occasionally, the stars just align in the right way for…
By Kaitlyn Wylde

Why My Boyfriend & I Started Couples Counseling 6 Months Into Our Relationship

Right away, Kurt and I agreed on almost everything. We had met through a mutual friend in 2015, but we didn't start dating until we came across each other on Bumble a few years later. That's when we discovered that we were on the same page when it ca…
By Rachel Simon

This Lace-Front Wig Is Going Viral Because No One Believes It's Actually A Wig

To understand how Zendaya easily goes from a pixie cut to voluminous curls or how the Kardashian-Jenners switch hair colors as frequently as they change clothes is to know the power of a good wig. Now that there's a lace-front wig going viral, the Tw…
By Summer Arlexis

This Primer & Mascara Combo Literally Doubles The Length Of My Eyelashes

Even as someone who loves beauty, I was never been particularly passionate about finding the perfect mascara. And then I got lash extensions for the first time. While I enjoy the long, full lashes that lash extensions provide, I always found myself j…
By Olivia Muenter

I Accidentally Fell In Love With My Friend With Benefits & It's Painful

Against my better judgment, I have fallen in love with my friend with benefits. I think I may have fallen in love with him month ago, but being stubborn AF, I fought against those feelings, tooth and nail, and, when it was suggested by a couple close…
By Amanda Chatel

This Viral Post About A Woman Breastfeeding In Public Actually Has A Happy Ending For Once

And today in things that will warm even the coldest of hearts, we have this: A story recently posted to the r/TwoXChromosome subreddit about a dad’s response to his daughter shaming a breastfeeding parent is everything. Posted by Redditor u/starsonwi…
By Lucia Peters

These March Beauty Launches Require Your Immediate Attention

I write one of these beauty editorials every month (feel free to check out January and February 2018 if you're in need of even more products to shower yourself with). Sometimes, I get worried that there won't be enough newness to share — especially b…
By Amanda Richards

Here's How You’re Most Likely To Get Your Heart Broken, Based On Your Zodiac Sign

Getting your heart broken can be one of the most painful experiences you can have in your life. But if you're into astrology, being familiar with your zodiac sign can be pretty helpful. For instance, when you know the ways you're likely to get your h…
By Kristine Fellizar

Finger Piercings Are Trending & The Internet Is Very Divided About Them

A new "accessories" trend is asserting itself on Instagram and it's subversive, non-traditional, and so darn precious. It also looks a tad painful but the end result is worth it. Dermal diamond finger piercings are a thing and they may make actual ri…
By Amy Sciarretto

How I Learned Losing Your Job Isn't The End Of The World

Two and a half years ago, I was taking a day off from my marketing job at a San Francisco tech startup to host a friend when I got a call from the CEO. Apparently, I'd missed a pretty big day: 80 percent of the company, including the whole sales and …
By Suzannah Weiss

Meghan Markle's First Appearance With The Queen Included An Homage To Princess Diana

Fashion pundits love keeping a close eye on what the women of the monarchy are wearing, especially when there's an overlap with Princess Diana's sense of style. We're nothing but nostalgic when it comes to Princess Di and her on-point aesthetic. Find…
By Marlen Komar

Why Arizona's Exit From 'Grey's Anatomy' Is A Huge Blow To The LGBTQ Community

Whenever I re-watch Grey's Anatomy, I don't start with Derek Shepherd waking up in Meredith's apartment after their first hookup. I start with Season 5, when Callie first meets Arizona in a bar. I start here, because I want to watch someone like me f…
By Martha Sorren

I Couldn't Find A Beauty Campaign With Plus Size Models, So I Made One Myself

In the fall of 2015, I visited relatives in my hometown, a small suburb of New Jersey. There isn't much to do there, apart from dining at Applebee's or hitting the mall. As a plus size woman, cruising through a shopping mall is a mixed bag. Certain d…
By Marie Southard Ospina

7 Signs You're The Emotionally Unavailable One In Your Relationship — And How To Work On It

It can be a weird feeling when you realize your relationship isn't working. But it happens — even in a long-term relationship — that, despite spending months or years together, you can realize that something is just missing. Sometimes that thing that…
By Lea Rose Emery

The 21 New Books That Goodreads Users Are Most Excited About This Spring

Despite the fact the Northeast is being pummeled by yet another storm that threatens to trap the region in snow and ice for eternity, winter is finally almost over, and you know what that means. No, I'm not talking about April showers or May flowers …
By Sadie Trombetta

Chelsea Clinton Gets Real About Twitter Trolls & What REALLY Infuriates Her About Trump

Before you read the first word on the first page of Chelsea Clinton's new book, you already know one thing: Strong women have always been a big part of her life. There's her mother, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was the first woman to run for president…
By Erin Delmore

If You’re Addicted To Rewatching ‘The Office,' There’s An Actual Reason For That

A few weeks ago, I tweeted that I was looking for fans of The Office who can't stop, won't stop rewatching the series, and that they should email me if they'd like to contribute to an article about their obsession. By the next morning, I had 32 messa…
By Lia Beck

Pregnant Chinese Women Have Been Eating Pearl Powder For Generations To Give Their Kids Clear Skin

If I were to line up next to my sisters, the difference is immediately noticeable: where my skin is a bit patchy and unmemorable, their skin radiates. Both of their faces have a discrete, poreless glow, and I’m certain you could bounce a kernel of ri…
By Angela Chen

This Is The Most Common Myers-Briggs Type

If you've ever really wanted to get to know yourself, you'll probably want to try out the Myers-Briggs type indicator test. You've probably seen a lot of articles online, and wondered about what the most common Myers-Briggs type is, as there's a lot …
By Kaitlyn Wylde

Halo Brows Take The Unibrow To New Heights — Literally

If there's one thing you can count on Instagram to deliver, it's some of the wackiest makeup trends, especially when it comes to brows. Considering beauty enthusiasts are all too eager to get creative with their arches, it's no wonder halo brows are …
By Summer Arlexis