The biology behind why we can’t help fawning over creatures great, small, and fluffy.
Writer: Lucy White
Editor: Elly Chaw
Artist: Emma-Maia Smith
It’s undeniable that we find baby mammals (especially the sweet, fluffy ones) indescribably adorable. Even the most stoic of people can melt when presented with a particularly gorgeous puppy. But why do we find some animals so darn cute, and others – like the great white shark, or the naked mole rat – decidedly unpleasant?
The answer is, in many ways, surprisingly simple. We are biologically programmed to have an emotional response to human babies. This is an essential evolutionary adaptation – we have to like our offspring to want to look after them when they are young and vulnerable.
When humans evolved to walk on two legs (bipedalism), the positions of our pelvises had to change, and pelvises became narrower. The result of this is that women cannot give birth to anything larger than a baby’s head, and hence human babies are born at an early stage in their development compared to other animals, like fish, which are essentially independent from birth. Human babies need to be taken care of for a long time after birth, and so an emotional response towards them is essential.
Traits that animals share with babies tend to elicit the strongest responses in people. Characteristics such as having big eyes and heads, prominent foreheads and retreating chins, round and pudgy bodies, and soft textures are all features of babies that are also seen in many young mammals. Scientists believe that dogs, having been domesticated, may have evolved by this logic, exploiting our preferences for things like the classic “puppy dog eyes”.
However, our responses may also be rooted in behaviours, rather than merely physical features. Elephants, for example, share few physical characteristics with human babies, but do share some behaviours. They often appear to be clumsy, and look vulnerable and fragile next to their much larger parents. We relate this to the similar traits seen in our offspring, so baby elephants can trigger just the same “cute response” as a puppy does.
Our neurological response to human babies and animals we find unbearably sweet is very much the same, and is rooted in the reward pathways of our brains. The “cute response” stimulates the limbic system, which contains structures such as the amygdala and the hippocampus. These structures are involved in emotion, learning, and memory. The reward pathway in the limbic system is triggered, and large amounts of dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with motivation and reward) are released. This emotional response is designed to encourage us to look after our offspring and ensure the survival of the species.
Our biological tendencies are also frequently exploited by companies for marketing purposes. For example, the Andrex company uses a Labrador puppy to help sell their toilet roll, and car companies (such as VW with the Beetle, and Mini with the Mini Cooper) produce cars with baby-like features: rounded bodies, large headlights, and a short front.
In essence, our brains have evolved to have such a strong response to human babies that we have the same response to a much wider range of things. The more similar an animal is to a human baby, the stronger our “cute response”, and the more likely we are to be caught out sighing dreamily at passing puppies or cooing at a neighbour’s cat.