Natural selection

The code for cuteness

By Angela Saini

Nothing goes viral faster than an adorable baby animal video. So what is it that triggers the ‘aw’ response? Is there a code for cuteness?

Those big, shining eyes, that button nose, that soft new fur – few people can resist a cute baby animal.

A baby monkey
There are deep psychological reasons why humans find babies of all species so cute. © Jishnu Satheesh Babu
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Even creatures that are terrifying as adults, including lions and panthers, somehow begin life as aw-inducing cubs. There are those who look at baby hippos and just want to scoop them up into a cuddle. So how is it that the same fierce or wild animals we would never dream of choosing as pets pull on our heartstrings quite so much when they’re born? Why are they immortalised in Disney films like Bambi and Dumbo, and Japanese toys like Hello Kitty? And why nowadays do puppies and kittens flood our social media timelines?

There are deep psychological reasons why humans find babies of all species so cute. Scientists believe that the powerful nurturing instinct we have for our own children spills over into an affection for anything that even loosely resembles them.

"People are also animals, and our infants and young children – like the infants and young of most species – have certain consistent traits," explains David Barash, psychology professor at the University of Washington, who studies human and animal behaviour.

People are also animals, and our infants and young children – like the infants and young of most species – have certain consistent traits"

David BarashProfessor of Psychology emeritus, University of Washington

In 1943, Austrian ethologist and zoologist Konrad Lorenz was the first to suggest that all infants have certain features in common that are universally appealing. They include a large head relative to the body, chubby cheeks, a high forehead, a small nose and mouth, and rounder bodies. We simply can’t help but gravitate to anything that fits this cute blueprint, described by Lorenz as the ‘baby schema’.

Certain behaviours also seem to have a common appeal. For example, one reason why baby chimps and monkeys attract crowds at zoos is because they can behave just like playful infants. Even a baby elephant, which appears to have little in common with human babies physically, has a clumsy gait that perhaps reminds us of an unsteady toddler.

Study after study has confirmed that humans prefer pictures of infants over those of grown-ups, and scientists at the University of Lincoln have calculated this strong drive becomes hardwired into us by the age of three. Culture, too, backs up this preference, as abstract representations of the baby schema can be found all over the world in cartoons and toys.

Research published in 2009 by German and American scientists found that both women and men seem to have an internal trigger that not only zooms in on cuteness but also prompts us to want to look after the creature in question – which suggests this is an evolutionary adaptation.

"Any predisposition to be especially benevolent toward critters that meet the “baby schema” is likely to be strongly favoured by natural selection," confirms Barash.

Eloise Stark works in the psychiatry department at the University of Oxford, studying parent-child interactions, and she believes the mere sight of something cute leaves a big impression on our minds.

"We know that [when we see a young animal or child] there is a really fast burst of activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in reward," she says. "We think this early activity biases the brain towards processing the cute stimulus – for example, by making sure we give it our full attention. The effect of this may be to approach the infant or cute animal, wanting to pick it up or look after it."

Our nature to nurture

It’s hard to judge whether other species experience the same pangs of love for cute creatures that we do, but this caretaking instinct may be particularly strong in humans because our offspring rely on us for far longer than those of every other mammal. Horses and cows can walk within hours of being born, for example, and cats and dogs reach maturity inside the space of months. Human babies, meanwhile, come into the world utterly helpless and remain dependent on their parents for many years. By plucking on our heartstrings, human babies are cleverly – if unknowingly – ensuring that they stay alive.

Does this mean babies’ features have evolved to appeal to us, or that humans have evolved to find their features cute?

"I would think that the two have co-evolved," suggests Stark. "It would make sense to think that over time, the cuter the baby, the better care it received, boosting its chances of survival."

Research Stark has co-authored found that babies reach out to all our senses – with their newborn smells and giggly laughs, for example – to help secure a caregiving response.

This multi-sensory assault seems to draw in not just parents, but all potential carers, including siblings, grandparents and strangers.

"From the research we have so far, it looks like the cuteness response is inclusive of everyone, regardless of whether you are a parent or not," says Stark. "This is why people are able to capitalise on cuteness in marketing, selling “cute” toys like Hello Kitty. The cuteness activates the same brain mechanisms, regardless of whether the object is a baby, a puppy or an object."

The pet factor

According to geneticist Adam Wilkins at Humboldt University in Berlin, the power of this mechanism is particularly clear when we look at our pets. Many generations of domestication have left household pets with very different features from their wild ancestors. They tend to be smaller, with shorter faces, smaller teeth and floppier ears. They have been bred to cater to our baby-loving demands, even if these infantile characteristics have had the unfortunate side effect of making the animals physically weaker.

Another dark side to cuteness is where it leaves subjectively less attractive animals in the race for our affection. An Australian study published last year found that ‘ugly’ animals, including certain species of rodent and bat native to the country, are at risk of extinction because they don’t attract as much research and conservation funding.

The tongue-in-cheek Ugly Animal Preservation Society has dedicated itself to celebrating the creatures that don’t meet our high aesthetic standards. Top of the list comes the blobfish, which looks as though it has a permanent frown on its unappealingly slimy face. As the society’s tagline reminds us, ‘We can’t all be pandas.’ And let’s not forget either, that as we get older, we all become less cute.

Featured image by Eleanor Hamilton