Why are baby animals so cute?

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1. All creatures cute and small

It’s almost a universal truth: we find baby animals more cute and pleasing to look at than their parents.

Their big eyes gaze at us as we become drawn, often affectionately and smiling, to their cute noses, fluffy faces and infantile features.

The need to be appealing to adult animals is an advantage because baby animals face some of the most difficult challenges in the animal kingdom – but what makes an infant animal appealing to humans?

2. The 'baby schema'

Click on the labels to see what features of the 'baby schema' make many baby animals appear cute

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The idea that adults might be especially attracted to infants was formalised in 1943 by renowned ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who was a scientist that studied animal behaviour. He sought to answer the question of why the babies of many species appear cute - the so called 'baby schema'.

3. The human attraction to babies

Objective tests published in numerous scientific journals over the years show that adult humans feel a range of positive emotions, including endearment, when shown pictures of human babies. They feel less aggressive, act more tenderly and want to take care and protect the infants they see. Such feelings are thought to increase their ability to parent, and the survival of human babies and young children.

Most research has investigated whether adult humans are attracted to babies of their own species. But there is also evidence that adult humans are drawn to baby animals too.

An empathy for animals

Some of that research is subjective, including our own reactions to pictures of young animals. Stuffed baby animal toys are hugely popular, as are cartoons of animal characters with babyish features. But there is also objective, empirical research. Adults and children generally rate pictures of infant animals as cuter than those of older ones. In 2013, researchers in the Netherlands published evidence in the journal Behavioural Processes confirming this effect. People felt significant empathy towards baby animals. The study also showed that women react more positively than men to cute animals as well as human babies. Why that is the case remains unclear, but there are two theories.

4. Evolutionary benefits

A code for cuteness

The first is that humans find baby animals endearing simply because they find human babies so, and the two share many physical characteristics, such as large eyes, a rounded face, small nose and a plump, small body.

This idea is supported by two studies, one in 2012 using kittens, the other in 2013 using puppies. After people looked at the faces of these infant pets, they rated the faces of human babies as cuter than they did before, suggesting they’d become attuned to some general principal of cuteness. That suggests Konrad Lorenz may have been correct – that there is a common mechanism, the baby schema, that codes the cuteness of human and non-human infant faces. So our attraction to cute animals may be an evolutionary hangover, our minds being tricked by the features we see. We like baby animals because they look something like baby humans do, and we are biologically programmed to care for babies.

Or better bonds?

The second idea is that our empathy with young animals allows us to better bond with them. Forming such bonds with animals, or being empathetic towards them, may have once been evolutionarily advantageous and helped us survive in the past, although it is not clear how.

But such research leaves one important question unanswered.

5. Do animals find babies cute?

Do animals themselves find the faces of babies, including of their own species, more appealing?

So far the evidence is mixed. A study in 2012 found that monkeys looked at images of infant monkeys for longer than those of other adults, suggesting they preferred images of babies. But in 2013 scientists in Japan tested whether the faces of newborn macaques better captured the attention of adult monkeys, and found they did not.

Baby monkeys are born immature and need nurturing by adults, so it would make sense for monkeys to also prefer infant-like characteristics. But human babies are even more helpless and need more care. Therefore humans may be more predisposed to find infants appealing, in order to deliver this care. That reinforces the idea that humans may actually find baby animals cuter, and more attractive to look at, than adult animals do, and this tendency is caused by our own biological affection for baby-like features.

How babies are raised

But there is much research still to be done. Studies on other ape or monkey species might yet reveal their own preferences for infantile-looking members of their own or other species. Or we might find that other mammals, but not reptiles or birds, for example, are similarly attracted to babies. What does seem likely is that these preferences are linked to how babies are raised. Species, including our own, that must invest a lot of care in babies to help them survive are likely to find baby-like features more appealing than species that do not care for their young.

6. Spot the cute baby

Which of these young animals has features included in the baby schema?

The pup

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Correct

This young old English sheepdog puppy has a large head and high, protruding forehead.

The baby bug

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Incorrect

This young leaf-footed bug has no features in the baby schema, lacking a large head and eyes, chubby cheeks, or thick extremities upon a plump body.

The young spider

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Correct

This spiderling actually looks cute as well as creepy, due to its big eyes and plump-looking body.