Why do we find some animals cuter than others?

When we see something adorable, it stimulates the mesocorticolimbic system in our brains, the part associated with motivation and reward. This causes a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine (also there when we fall in love) and makes us feel warm and fuzzy

Jodie Tyley
Tuesday 06 October 2015 16:16 BST

Cute baby creatures are adorable; lambs gambolling in a field, fluffy ducklings in a nest or kittens playing with a ball of wool can make even the hardest soul melt. But what makes the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ escape us when cute creatures are around, but not when we’re faced with a swarm of bees, for example?

The science behind the cutesy faces is simple: we like baby animals because we are biologically programmed to like human babies, and we need to like our human bambinos so that we take care of them, ensuring the human race lives on.

There are certain features that a lot of baby mammals have in common and these are the triggers that make us go gooey on the inside. Among others, big eyes and fuzzy, podgy bodies push our buttons. Babies have these traits, as do puppies, along with many other things that you might not even notice. Ever wandered past a car and thought it looked cute? Not a coincidence. The manufacturers of the Mini Cooper have thought ahead and made the headlights large, rounded and forward-facing to mimic a pair of large baby peepers and send our cute receptors firing all over the place.

The reason why we love cute things is because they flood our brains with feel-good chemicals. If you’re having a bad day, just do an internet search for a baby llama and you’ll feel better in no time. Interestingly, many people will look at that llama and think it’s just so incredibly adorable they could smoosh it up and eat it. This is called cuteness aggression and, although it sounds a bit weird, it’s perfectly normal. Your brain senses the cute, but then tries to overcompensate for it! As long as you don’t actually take a bite out of the little guy, you’re fine.

But why are we so cute? It’s because we walk on two legs. Due to our bipedalism, our pelvises shifted, meaning that women can’t give birth to anything larger than a baby’s head. Our human brains are already disproportionately large, which is why a baby’s head is so big and round at birth. This sends our cute response into overdrive and we can’t help but want to take care of the mini person forever.

The baby schema

This is a tried-and-tested set of physical characteristics that are almost guaranteed to induce an audible ‘aww’. Documented by scientists, these features are based upon the things that we most find adorable on a human baby – the things that provoke our innate desire to take care of something.

Baby schema features also appear on many other animals, most often baby mammals. When we see these visually cute clues, which include big heads, round bodies, large eyes and soft textures, they often elicit the same response – making us want to pick them up, give them a big cuddle and look after them.

Even toddlers can recognise ‘cuter’ faces, according to a study by the University of Lincoln, which manipulated images of faces and analysed the response of children aged 3-6.

What cute does to the brain

When we see something that’s totally adorable, it captures our attention, brings a smile to our faces and we will more than likely feel compelled to rush up and touch it. This is because it stimulates an area in our mid-brains known as the mesocorticolimbic system. This is the part of the brain that is associated with the processes of motivation and reward. When we look at a sweet bouncing baby, our brains recognise the features that make us relate to our own young (as outlined by the baby schema). This causes a surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine (one that’s involved when we fall in love) and makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, which is an enjoyable feeling. Our brains commit that rewarding feeling to memory, letting us know to do it again. The emotional response triggered by the cuteness also stimulates the motivation to care for the animal, hence the urge to pick it up and give it a big old cuddle. This reaction is so ingrained in our human brains that it can be triggered by other things, such as cute little creatures or even inanimate objects with certain features that trigger our ‘cute’ response.

Why having adorable babies is essential for some species’ survival

In the animal kingdom there are some animals that, once born, charge headfirst into the big wide world without a second look at the parent from whence they came. For example, most insects, reptiles and fish follow this gung-ho approach to infancy. Generally, these types of creatures are notoriously ‘not cute’. Although they may have some redeeming features, what the baby schema denotes as ‘classically adorable’ is largely missing from their profiles.

Many other species have an entirely different childhood where they need nurturing and protecting while they grow big and strong – much like our own parental care. It is absolutely no coincidence then that we consider these creatures as much cuter than their more headstrong classmates.

The nature of mammals means that animals are born with plenty of growing left to do. Their features are rounder, noses and snouts are stubbier and there’s often a thick layer of baby fat to help cut an even more rotund silhouette. As they slowly grow up, these features elongate and exaggerate and their ‘cuteness’ fades.

The evolutionary advantage to gradual growth and development is thought to be a sort of trade-off. While a baby horse can stand up within minutes of being born, it takes a human baby months to even hold itself up. Scientists think that the downside to humans being able to achieve such incredible things in adult life is that it takes us around eighteen years to fully mature – which is a very long time in comparison to our animal friends.

This is why our kids need to be cute and why we need to find them cute. The same is true for the animal kingdom – both humans and animals need to care for their offspring in order to prolong the existence of their species. In humans, as the cute response is triggered by looking at newborn bundles of joy (or the fluffy animal variety), the neurotransmitters dopamine and oxytocin are released.

Associated with the ‘reward’ pathway in our brains, they also play a key part in social interaction and intimacy – how we bond with other humans. The bond that a mother shares with her baby needs to be strong so that the mother will protect her offspring no matter what. This kind of empathy also enables us to form attachments to our pets.

Did dogs evolve to be cuter?

Anyone who owns a pet dog will be no stranger to ‘puppy dog eyes’ – the look our pooches give us that we just can’t resist. We know that domestic dogs are descended from wolves and it’s also very clear to anyone who’s ever set eyes on a Labrador, that there are features domestic dogs have that make them far cuter to us. An aggressive wolf approaching a group of early humans with teeth bared is far less likely to be tolerated than a friendly wolf that gives the classic puppy dog eyes. So, it may be that this doe-eyed expression that sends us reaching for the treat jar may have developed as dogs have exploited human preferences. This manipulation tactic may even work so well that it ensures rescue dogs find a new home: scientists studied dogs in shelters and those that pulled certain facial expressions that we find to be cute were more likely to be adopted.

Jodie Tyley is editor of How It Works Magazine. The latest issue is out now: Issue 77 ‘The Power of Magnetism’

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