Why are baby animals cuter than baby humans?
February 7, 2013 8:24 PM   Subscribe

Why do kittens, bunnies, puppies, and their ilk seem so much cuter than human babies? This is something I've always wondered, and I am surprised that it doesn't seem to have been asked here. I've seen some idle speculations about the reasons in various places around the Web, but nothing resembling evidence. Is there any actual research related to this topic? Or is the question based on flawed assumptions somehow?

I'm also wondering if there are cultural variations in the phenomenon. Is it only the Internet that's so much more into kittens than babies? Did anyone alive two centuries ago think that dogs outshined humans in the baby-cuteness department? Do most people start finding baby pictures cuter than bunny pictures once they've had kids of their own?
posted by fermion to Science & Nature (46 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
There's a name for this that I am totally blanking on. Knowing that word would help your search. But here's an example of some answers: http://www.happynews.com/news/562009/why-baby-animals-cute.htm
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:28 PM on February 7, 2013

neotany, that's it
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:28 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's about the eyes. Bigger eye to face ratio in most 'cute' animals.
posted by artdrectr at 8:28 PM on February 7, 2013 [5 favorites]

No, wait, neotany is when adult animals have baby-like characteristics, which make us think the adults look super-cute. Sorry.
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:29 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I took a class with EO Wilson, who I think started researching some of this. The theory was very much that all baby mammals had the big-eyed look that humans registered as "cute," which helped all mammal mothers/parents register the baby as "helpless" and work toward providing what they need. He very much emphasized that all baby mammals -- including baby humans -- had similar facial characteristics, and that these characteristics were what humans labeled as "cute."
posted by jaguar at 8:41 PM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Stephen Jay Gould discussed "our capacity for biologically inappropriate response to other animals" in this well-known essay (pdf).
posted by Knappster at 8:42 PM on February 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

Are we talking about newborns here? Because newborn humans are among the most undeveloped (non-pouch) mammals at birth, and they look pretty appalling as a result, particularly because human newborns tend to be fairly scrawny. We also see pictures of human newborns fresh from the birth canal in pictures a lot more often than we see, say, freshly newborn kittens, so you've probably seen a lot more human babies who haven't yet been cleaned up after birth. Human babies are also more disproportionate, compared to human adults, than most other mammals (human infant heads are GIGANTIC).

When you think of a stereotypical cute, chubby-cheeked Gerber baby, those are in the 3-6 month old range when babies are pretty cute and start to look more like cute tiny humans than terrifying aliens.

Every newborn is beautiful because OMG DUDE TINY PERFECT HUMAN but we called our first one Gollum for six weeks after he was born because, well, yeah. My good friend's baby was a dead ringer for a chimpanzee when she was born and they still call her "monkey" now that she's four. Coneheads, facial bruising, eye swelling, eerily pulsating brains ... human newborns have some issues.

If you don't think six-month-old babies are cute, though, I don't know what to tell you. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:42 PM on February 7, 2013 [40 favorites]

It's the fur. Fuzzy things are cute. Well, except for tarantulas.
posted by MexicanYenta at 8:43 PM on February 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

The human brain has evolved a set of responses to stimuli common to human babies that encourage us to invest resources to nourish and protect them. Chances are that set of responses evolved early on in mammal evolution, and many of the same instincts and triggering stimuli are shared between all mammalian species -- you can find many, many examples of cross-species adoption in mammals on youtube. I'm sure that dogs find human babies as 'cute' as you find puppies (I wonder if there has been any research on that?)

In addition, there's been a lot of selection pressure on dogs and cats as they've become domesticated to become particularly appealing to people, since they would benefit from increased resources and attention -- perhaps even to the detriment of people's own children.
posted by empath at 8:43 PM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Yeah, getting a kid of your own completely changes things. Other people's kids suddenly get a lot more awesome, too... there isn't a two-year old alive that couldn't melt my heart.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:44 PM on February 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

here's an example of a cheetah temporarily adopting a baboon after killing its mother, for example -- I think perhaps a cheetah might react similarly to an infant human (but I wouldn't want to test it).
posted by empath at 8:47 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: It's not that I don't think baby humans are cute, they're just not AS cute as, say, kittens. Sure, they all share the same big-head large-eyes cuteness markers, but why would animals of another species trigger the cuteness reflex so much more strongly than human babies do?

I feel like other people share this sentiment, else why would there be so many more websites devoted to cute-baby-animals than to cute-baby-humans? But perhaps I'm wrong about that.
posted by fermion at 8:49 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Fur just looks much better than flesh.
posted by 2bucksplus at 8:49 PM on February 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

It's the fur, because freshly newborn rabbits, kangaroos, pandas, etc. are actually not very cute at all. They just look like little pink lumps of flesh. They only get cute after they've grown fur and taken some form.
posted by pravit at 8:50 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Human parents are less likely to kill and eat their offspring than something like a cat or dog?
posted by fshgrl at 9:07 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's cultural. Babies mean responsibility and work to you. To someone from a different culture, a kitten, kid or calf would elicit the same response.
posted by taff at 9:08 PM on February 7, 2013 [7 favorites]

Yeah I think you're projecting a personal preference here. Newborn dogs and cats are certainly no more appealing than a newborn human; and at their cuteness peak -- like ~7 weeks for a puppy, and ~6 months for a baby -- I'll play with the puppy for five minutes but become completely enslaved by the baby. Puppies are not actually objectively more appealing or interesting.

(Ok to be fair I have met babies who were less cute than puppies, but their mothers didn't think so and I didn't tell them.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:30 PM on February 7, 2013 [6 favorites]

It might also have something to do with furry animals vs humans in general. While out and about, even seeing adult versions of cats and dogs evokes feelings of warmth and bemusement in a way that seeing other humans don't. Maybe part of it is just that seeing other humans is so much more common and mundane?

And putting a funny hat on an animal is funnier than putting a funny hat on a human.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:30 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't think kittens are cuter than babies. That's your own subjective point of view, not a fact.
posted by Dansaman at 9:34 PM on February 7, 2013 [8 favorites]

Before my son was born, I really wished he would magically look like a kitten for the first few years of life, and then when the time was right morph into, say, a four-year-old. So I understand where you're coming from.

Taff might be on to something. Looking at a baby, some part of your mind asks, "is that diaper poopy? like full of poop RIGHT NOW??" With a cat, not an issue (usually). No diapers required. Just soft fur and hijinks. Young babies, fewer hijinks.

However, like many others, I now find babies WAAAY cuter after having one of my own. Some hormonal lever in my brain is jammed in the "on" position that was not that way before.
posted by daisystomper at 9:38 PM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Kittens are cuter than babies until you have one of your own. Especially if you are female, because after giving birth, hormones kick in and EVERY baby is soooooooo deliciously adorable. The hormones ensure we don't neglect our young. I imagine this works similarly for us with baby animals with big eyes and all the rest - it triggers our innate human desire (chemical response?) to care for our young.

I love animals. Always have.

Kittens are not cuter to me than babies these days!

I also think your opinion is subjective. As is mine. Although, there is some science to back up my perspective.

Seriously. My son is almost 2 years old, and every infant I see (and I notice more infants now than I every did in the 38 years before having my son, and I'm not a "baby person") now is like an angel spun from gold and anointed with unicorn tears. It feels a little like being crazy.

Thanks, hormones!
posted by jbenben at 9:48 PM on February 7, 2013 [15 favorites]

Yes, thank you, hormones. Once you have a kid of your own, there will never be a cuter kitten/puppy/someone else's baby than your baby. Then, just wait until your grandkids start coming!
posted by Lynsey at 9:59 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Human parents are less likely to kill and eat their offspring than something like a cat or dog?

Only until they become teenagers - Then you discover why some species eat their young....

More to the point, What others have said, plus the hormones. There is (generally) a big hormonal response to certain face types (large eyes, etc.) that I suppose is evolved to get mothers to love the thing that just squirted out of them.

Harry Harlow did a bunch of really controversial work on the effects of parental neglect on primates - it those effects were severely debilitating to the baby. Point is, anything that gets the parents to pay attention to the baby is probably evolutionarily good, and that carried over to humans, too.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 10:01 PM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

For me a lot of the cuteness is not solely in appearance but in appearance plus just-getting-the-hang-of-it mobility/playfulness/burgeoning signs of thought even if all of that is baggage in my head and I'm just staring at photos on a wall. And as has been discussed above, newborn humans are far less functional straight out the gate than most other mammals. It's like eyes-closed newborn puppies - they basically just wriggle. Not nearly as cute as a fluffy toddly puppy.
posted by vegartanipla at 10:13 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Setting aside the question of whether or not you're projecting from your own biases about what is cute, you might be forgetting that there's a social component that keeps people from treating photos of infant people like photos of tiny animals. There are plenty of videos and photos distributed online of kids doing cute things. Just search Youtube or trawl some parenting blogs. But having a website solely devoted to pictures of other people's children is, frankly, a little weird and could open the person running it up to charges of child pornography and questions about respecting the privacy of the child involved.

So the issue may not be that babies are less cute, but that baby animals are less complicated subjects to objectify, distribute images of, and squeal over.
posted by rhythm and booze at 10:47 PM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

I know you asked for research, but I'm going to give my own idea here anyway, since others are doing so. Besides, I think it's good :)

I think that part of some kinds of "cuteness" comes from a simplified face. Older people have more lines, more divergent profiles; younger ones have fewer lines and contours. Similarly, kitties' faces are even simpler because of the fur. Kittens have the simplified shape of babyhood plus the added simplification of fur covering.

See also: dolls, cartoons, manga, makeup - all are simpler than reality, and all have increased potential for the quality I'm calling "a certain cuteness" inversely to their complexity.

I think this factors into the uncanny valley as well - if you add enough realism/complexity, things go from cute to creepy (unless you can mimic reality perfectly - but then you're out of the valley).

Another possibility: it's a lot easier to make a kitty, puppy, or piglet happy than to make a baby happy, much of the time.
posted by amtho at 10:55 PM on February 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Fur just looks much better than flesh.

I was going to say it's the fur, but then I saw baby turtles! Which are also cuter than human babies! So I am sure we can all agree here that fur is not the deciding factor.
posted by mochapickle at 1:51 AM on February 8, 2013 [5 favorites]

They're fluffy! Fluffy things is always cutest.
posted by windykites at 2:14 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Baby humans all look like Winston Churchill for like, a year. Kittens look like even more adorable cats after a few weeks. Kittens FTW.
posted by Kitty Stardust at 4:04 AM on February 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

Are we talking about newborns here? Because newborn humans are among the most undeveloped (non-pouch) mammals at birth, and they look pretty appalling as a result, particularly because human newborns tend to be fairly scrawny. We also see pictures of human newborns fresh from the birth canal in pictures a lot more often than we see, say, freshly newborn kittens, so you've probably seen a lot more human babies who haven't yet been cleaned up after birth.

I think this is a part of it. Except for things like horses and elephants, where the newborns are fully cooked once they are born, newborn animals are pretty horrifying looking. A day old kitten isn't really cute. It's more like "oh god, is it deformed? Why are its ears in the wrong place?!!?"

I also agree that part of it is the responsibility thing. An infant is a crying, pooping, eating machine that triggers an instinct within us to straighten up and try to care for it. An infant puppy or kitten does the same thing, but so much less work. (For us. The "tired, trapped mom" look on some mother cats while nursing it hilarious.) Even if we have an orphan that we have to care for 100%, it's really just like an hour or two of work a day.

Third is the speed at which they grow up. A 12 week old kitten is pretty much shaped like a cat, probably like a 6 or 7 year old human. Which are also when humans are at their cutest- their proportions are starting to look much more adult like. Spending an hour with a kitten or puppy is compressing like three days worth of cute learning/exploring in a human toddler.

Final note: kittens have baby teeth that fall out just like people.
Final note 2: "Too Cute" on Animal Planet is the best show ever.
posted by gjc at 4:19 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Baby humans all look like Winston Churchill for like, a year. Kittens look like even more adorable cats after a few weeks. Kittens FTW.

brilliant. and true.

Also kittens, puppies etc scamper around and get a bit bambi legged sometimes. babies are kind of just like potatoes for a long while - they're odd shaped and dont do anything.

i also think the whole 'hello kitty' thing about her not having a mouth so you cant really tell how she's feeling plays into it - kittens just have such huge eyes and you can dream up your own take on how you feel (how the kitten feels) about seeing it playing with a ball of string, chasing its tail etc.
posted by moreteaplease at 4:56 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another part I think is important is that baby animals are way more self-sufficient than babies - which means that when you're holding and cuddling a baby animal, you dont' have to worry - am I holding it right? Am I going to break it? It can just be for you, not just for the creature. I think that really ups the love factor.

I don't ask to hold people's babies, but I do ask to hold people's kittens.
posted by corb at 5:05 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree that the quicker development of baby animals vs. humans plays a large part. A six-week-old kitten or puppy is physically and mentally closer to a human toddler than an infant. In addition to looking more like the adult version of themselves than newborns, they have more recognizable personalities, scamper around and play, don't communicate by screaming, and aren't as likely to start leaking various effluvia from head or tail.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:24 AM on February 8, 2013

Stephen Jay Gould addresses the cuteness of all young things in his essay, A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:11 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

also, a kitten has to be kind of injured in order not to be cute, but some babies just aren't that cute -- maybe they're scrawny, or have to grow into their faces, or look like little old men until they're 4 or whatever -- you really have to cherry-picky your babies to get cute, while pretty much any litter of bumbling kittens are cute right out of the box. plus, they're walking around while still so clueless, which is cute in a cat (but not in a kid, who could pull the house down around him or fall down the stairs).

just more speculation, not research here.
posted by acm at 6:38 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Animal babies:
1. Are fur-covered, which ameliorates their wrinkly newness underneath.
2. Are relatively quiet.
3. Don't stink.
4. Are not defecating this minute.

Whereas, human babies;
1. Are macrocephalic monstrosities.
2. Make spit-assisted screams.
3. Stink, because

4. they are probably peeing or pooping right now.

Oh, and plus? They take 25 to 30 years to grow up, complain about their childhoods on the shrink's couch, and go on to form illegal pyramid schemes.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:57 AM on February 8, 2013 [8 favorites]

Well I think they're equally cute (the cute ones, anyway) and that your premise is flawed. But as to this:

else why would there be so many more websites devoted to cute-baby-animals than to cute-baby-humans

It's easier to look at, say, kittens, because if doing so makes you REALLY WANT A KITTEN you can probably get one with relatively minimal adjustments to your life. But if looking at babies makes you REALLY WANT A BABY, then you're SOL. Because it's not as easy as finding an apartment that allows babies, or saving up a few hundred dollars for baby equipment. And it's just fun escapism to look at baby lions or elephants, because you could never have one anyway. But after the initial wave of "ooh, cute!" it's depressing to look at baby babies.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 7:10 AM on February 8, 2013

As others have echoed above, I do believe your question is based on a preexisting personal preference (one that I agree with; I don't think human babies are cute at all), but I've been curious about this topic as well, because at 30, I finally feel like my biological clock is starting to tick... to adopt more animals. Looking at animal babies right now is pure fucking torture to me, because I cannot have one and I want one I want one I neeeeeeeeeeed one oh dear god.

For many years, I've been quite happy living in a 1 dog/1 cat household, but over the past year or so, my very soul has been rent in twain whenever I've made the mistake of scrolling through Petfinder knowing that there is simply no way I have the resources to adopt another pet. It feels unbearable sometimes, something akin to biological. It's VERY strong, almost overwhelming, like I literally must adopt and care for another furry friend -- or otherwise snuggle/bellyrub/give many treats to one who is near -- lest I perish independent of any actual ailment. Is this how people feel when they go baby crazy (which tends to happen around my age)? Is it possible for human baby-craziness to be replaced with or subverted by animal baby-craziness?

To get down to it, I've seen all but one of my species-propagating friends decide that human babies are much, much cuter/generally better overall than puppies/kittens/etc. pretty much the exact moment their own baby has entered the world. (The lone standout believes that human and non-human babies are equally cute.) Based on that anecdata, people start thinking that human babies are cuter than other animal babies as soon as they have a human baby of their own. And I agree with BostonTerrier's assessment completely; this is the cost-benefit analysis I perform every time I see a human baby vs. animal baby: Which one's elimination routine requires the smallest amount of intervention? That is the cuter/better one.
posted by divined by radio at 8:16 AM on February 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I have a baby, and I hate cats. But I agree that kittens are far cuter than babies.

My theory is that whatever "cute circuits" exist in our brains didn't evolve to recognize a complex entity: they evolved, by all accounts, to recognize a set of relatively simple cues (large eyes, small nose, round face, soft/smooth coat/skin, etc.). Those cues do get reliably activated by a human baby, but that doesn't mean you can't game the system, as it were, by kicking the level of those "cute" features up artificially past the point that'd be realistically observed in a human body. Again, because the brain's recognizing the features, not the entity, intensifying those features reads as ultra-cute not weird. And kittens/puppies/bushbabies just happen to have more intense versions of the particular features that trip our cute circuits.

That'd also explain, for instance, why a cartoon kitten with huge, completely biologically untenable eyes is even cuter than a real-life kitten. Or why Barbie-shaped cartoon hotties with impossible wasp waists and torpedo breasts can read as even "sexier" than very sexy real-life women.
posted by Bardolph at 8:51 AM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also kittens and puppies develop to the cute stage a lot faster than human babies. A new born kitten, rabbit, rat, bird are all pretty gross looking, hairless and blobby ( swear baby parrots are the fugliest thing in existance). At about 4 to 6 weeks is when a lot of "cute" animals start looking super cute which is about the point they start getting mobile and learning things, so really you should compare them to toddlers instead of humans of the same age. Because I really don't like the way babies look, though I'd never tell their parents that, but toddlers are some of the cutest and funniest things in the world and a toddler playing with a puppy or kitten all but slays me.
posted by wwax at 10:09 AM on February 8, 2013

It's the fur. Fuzzy things are cute. Well, except for tarantulas.

Ah, but tarantulas don't have big eyes, do they?
posted by Doohickie at 2:20 PM on February 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think a lot of it is responsibility, and probably also whether or not you have produced a human baby or not. For me, a person who has not (yet) produced a child, I barely notice babies and am completely bored with them until they're walking. Babies are pretty much pure work for a longer period of time than kittens/puppies. Also kittens/puppies aren't really work for us...they're work for the mother dog/cat. I mean with kittens you don't even have to potty train them!

On the other hand I think toddlers are adorable, and I would equate them more to the cuteness that I find in puppies and kittens. The newborn puppies and kittens that are barely moving around aren't particularly "aww" inducing either.

(My opinion of infants/non-walking babies will surely change if/once I have one of my own.)
posted by fromageball at 5:32 PM on February 8, 2013

Spiders can be cute!
posted by obol at 5:41 PM on February 8, 2013

It's the fur. Fuzzy things are cute. Well, except for tarantulas.

What? How is this fuzzy baby monster not cute?

Anyway, I think the relative age is a big part of it. A really cute kitten or colt or bunny is usually toddler age, which is when human babies get cute and interesting (for those that don't generally find them cuter than baby animals).
posted by oneirodynia at 5:42 PM on February 8, 2013

Speculating: I wonder if the size of the head in relation to the eyes has anything to do with it. As we are programmed to think big eyes equals cute a larger head for a larger brain makes the eyes of an infant/child seem smaller. An animal with a smaller brain and therefore head appears to have larger eyes in relation to the face.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 9:50 PM on February 8, 2013

Response by poster: Okay, so I think the answers break down into a few categories:

- The premise is flawed, kittens are equal to or less than babies in cuteness, for an equivalent developmental stage
- The premise is partially flawed, babies tend to be cuter than kittens if you have kids of your own
- Kittens are cuter because fur
- Babies are less cute because of cultural baggage
- Kittens hyperstimulate our "cuteness centers" because of simpler features/more exaggerated eye-to-head ratio

I did some more digging for research and found this interesting paper, which references the idea (further explicated in this book) that animals can be "cuter" than babies because their features can become much more exaggeratedly "cute" without entering the uncanny valley.
posted by fermion at 9:28 PM on February 10, 2013

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