What makes us go ‘aww’?

Chris Lynch 25 January 2015

It’s an undeniable fact that we find baby animals endearing. We’d much prefer to look at a young puppy or a lion cub than to be met with an old, well-worn middle-aged elephant. The answer may lie in our humble evolutionary past.

In 1943, ethologist Konrad Lorenz argued that the reason why we find infants so especially attractive, so especially cute, is that a perception of cuteness increases the ability to parent. When we feel endearment towards babies, this makes us feel less aggressive, more tender, and keen to take care of the pooing and spewing little darling in front of us. These feelings induce a powerful desire in humans to protect the security and further the wellbeing of the baby that they find so adorably cute.

This simple evolutionary picture of our partiality for babies might help shed light on why humans find human babies so adorable. But there remains the question of why humans find baby animals so attractive and charming too look at and to feel. The evidence surrounding the human attraction to baby animals as compared with adults of the same species falls broadly into two camps. Firstly, there are the ‘objective’ results of repeatable scientific experiments. And secondly, there are the comparably more subjective data of people’s expressed likings for stuffed baby animal toys, for baby animals as portrayed in films and television.

Our attraction to so-called ‘cute’ baby animals may in effect be a mere evolutionary hangover, where our minds are tricked by the features we see. We like baby animals because they look like baby humans do – and we are biologically programmed to care for babies. Our solid evolutionary tendency to care for human babies then gets misapplied to the rest of the animal kingdom, and we come to feel a pang when we look at a meowing kitten or a prowling bear cub.

Whilst this feels more relevant to a past primitive stage than speaking to our enlightened 21st Century modernity, it affirms that our tendency to find babies cute is one that we’re better off having than lacking. For one thing, it’s intrinsically pleasurable to spend time looking at or playing with a young animal, where the harm factor that you get with adults of the species is typically removed. But more importantly, our ability to find babies cute keeps us going back for more: procreating, raising and collectively nurturing new lives.