Why Do We Melt and Coo at Cute Baby, Puppy and Kitten Pictures

It makes sense that cute babies and their photographs appeal to most people because it triggers an innate care-giving behavior and reaction. Most humans love baby pictures, a feature which is exploited by advertisers to sell many products using cute baby and animal images.

But why do pictures of baby animals, especially dogs and cats produce a similar response to babies in most humans? You can understand humans liking pictures of other primates such as monkeys and apes, but why is there a similar reaction to animals in more remote genetic families? Many baby animals, especially primates, have human-like facial features. They share similar looking faces with short noses, round faces, big eyes facing forward, and high foreheads. Some animal babies share these features, and so it is easy to understand why humans like faces that resemble human baby faces.

Research has shown that 'cuteness' also triggers nurturing responses in animals, even for unrelated animals species. Animals like cute babies of other species as well. Research has shown that monkeys prefer to look at photographs of baby monkeys over adults regardless of whether they are the same species or not. There are many stories of animals adopting and caring for babies of other species. Perhaps all animals share care-giving behavior for all species, and this may explain why humans and animals love photographs of puppies and kittens.

Other research has shown that cuteness is affected by the 'wow' factor. Human subjects shown a number of photographs of very cute babies or animals tended to change their 'cuteness' scores so that average-looking babies are regarded as less cute than they were previously. The re-scaling of the cuteness scores occurred irrespective of what cute animal species the human subjects were looking at.

What is going on here? What does cuteness or adorable mean? Why do humans melt and coo when seeing cute babies of humans and other species? Is cuteness a universal trait in the animal kingdom that is applied to babies?

This article sheds light on recent research about cuteness, and cuteness after-effects or adaptation.

The cuteness response appears to be an evolutionary adaptation to support care giving and nurturing
The cuteness response appears to be an evolutionary adaptation to support care giving and nurturing | Source
Cute kittens stimulate the same neural pathways to the nurturing centers in the brain as cute human babies.
Cute kittens stimulate the same neural pathways to the nurturing centers in the brain as cute human babies. | Source
Humans respond to cute animals and human babies in similar ways, provided the facial features are similar.
Humans respond to cute animals and human babies in similar ways, provided the facial features are similar. | Source
Very cute puppy evokes a very similar response in the brain to seeing a cute baby
Very cute puppy evokes a very similar response in the brain to seeing a cute baby | Source
Primate baby faces are very similar to humans and it is understandable that the responses to cuteness are similar.
Primate baby faces are very similar to humans and it is understandable that the responses to cuteness are similar. | Source
Cute kittens trigger a care-giving response in most people that is similar to that for cute human infants
Cute kittens trigger a care-giving response in most people that is similar to that for cute human infants | Source
Very cute cat
Very cute cat | Source
Cuteness is evoked by a particular set of facial features that is shared by animals and human infants. Some animals share these features more than  others.
Cuteness is evoked by a particular set of facial features that is shared by animals and human infants. Some animals share these features more than others. | Source
Pandas are one of the cutest animals
Pandas are one of the cutest animals | Source
As the facial features of animals shifts away from that of a human baby, the cuteness response declines. Humans like cute animals that resemble cute babies
As the facial features of animals shifts away from that of a human baby, the cuteness response declines. Humans like cute animals that resemble cute babies | Source

What is Cuteness

Konrad Lorenz suggested that Humans feel more affection for animals with human-like baby features: bulging foreheads, large eyes and  retreating chins. Animals with long snouts, small eyes are less cute.
Konrad Lorenz suggested that Humans feel more affection for animals with human-like baby features: bulging foreheads, large eyes and retreating chins. Animals with long snouts, small eyes are less cute. | Source

Cuteness is a subjective term for attractiveness and adorableness, commonly associated with baby and juvenile features, especially in the face.

Konrad Lorenz developed the concept of Kindchenschema (baby schema), which is a set of facial, head and body features that make humans and other animals appear to be "cute", by triggering the motivation to care or nurture the baby or animal. See the image opposite.

Konrad Lorenz suggested that triggering nurturing response was an evolutionary adaptation.

This response was inbuilt in humans help ensure that adults cared for their children and this helped increase the changes that their offspring would survive.

Later research showed that responses to cuteness was similar for various human cultures.

Various experimental studies have confirmed the correlation between the cuteness of infants in photographs and the motivation for caretaking, even the human subjects were not related to the infant.

Studies of the brain with magnetic resonance imaging showed that subjects viewing cute baby faces generated more activity in an area of the brain associated with motivation and reward. This response occurred for both human and animal cute faces. This suggested that the brain pathways and behavioral responses to cuteness was the same for both animal and human babies.

Is the Response to Cute Animals the Same as For Cute Human Babies?

It appears that human brains do not differentiate between cute human babies and those of animals. The same neural pathways have been shown to be activated in both cases.

Interestingly, it has been shown that adaptation applies to the response to cuteness. If you look bright lights for a while, normal lights appear to be darker. Similarly looking at low intensity lights makes normal light seems brighter.

The same adaptation response applies for cuteness. If test subjects look at a series of very cute baby pictures, the average ones appear to be less cute than previously. Similarly subjects that looked at many less cute babies, rated the average cuteness ones more highly.

Once again it was shown that this same principle applied if the subjects looked at cute animal pictures, which could make human babies appear less cute than before.

To test this adaptation response, researchers divided 48 subjects into two groups.

► The first group adapted to a series of less-cute and cute human infant faces.

The second group adapted to less-cute and cute puppy dog faces.

Both groups were then asked to rate the cuteness of the same set of human infant pictures. The adaptation response of the two groups was very similar.

So humans shown very cute puppy faces rated human infant faces less cute than the groups shown less-cute puppy faces. This suggests that the cuteness response to animal and human babies occurs via a similar pathway in the brain.

This research supports the concept of Kindchenschema in evoking a nurturing response. This also supports the claim by Konrad Lorenz that Kindchenschema is not species specific.

The study also provides clear evidence that seeing cute baby images can evokes short term after-effects changing the way humans perceive cuteness.

© 2015 Dr. John Anderson

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Rachel L Alba profile image

Rachel L Alba 20 months ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

I read somewhere that babies and baby animals are so endearing because they have big eyes and small hands and their smiles are so natural. Even though our eyes stay the same size, the bigger our heads get the smaller our eyes look. But when we are babies, our eyes appear big and adorable. What ever the reason, you can't help but smile when you see a baby or baby animal.

Thanks for sharing this hub.

Blessings to you.

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