The science behind cuteness

Story and photos by Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

Big, round eyes gaze up at you. The pup has those soft folds of extra skin around the base of his tender, floppy ears and his nose is short on his compact, oval face. It looks like he wears snowshoes—his oversized feet can surely carry him across any stretch of snow—but they give awkward thuds as he wobbles across the floor.

Puppies steal the show at most any event. They give us that eyebrow-raising, lower-lip quivering, unbearable desire to simply sit and watch, or even give the little guy a hug. As humans, we find these juvenile canines impossibly cute. But why?

Turns out this question emerged in the academic realm years ago. Since the 1940s, scientists and researchers have studied the traits humans identify as adorable. This set of physical features—coined baby schema or kinderschema by Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz—includes a round face and big forward-facing eyes, chubby cheeks and floppy limbs. This same criteria applies to pudgy human babies we can’t take our eyes off.

The actual science behind cuteness is rooted in evolutionary biology. According to Lorenz’s theory, these traits motivate us to care for and protect anything that exhibits those “cute” characteristics. As a species whose offspring are incredibly vulnerable, it makes sense we have evolved to be particularly sensitive to any indication of youthfulness and need. Humans don’t even distinguish between species, scientists say.

Montana State University history grad Oliver Manning studied bears and the evolutionary psychology of cuteness for his 2015 undergraduate capstone project. A large part of his research consisted of reading journals of early travelers to the Yellowstone area.

“[The early accounts] revealed how people could view cuteness in something that could kill them,” Manning said, adding that travelers found the bears human-like, and some trapped cubs to take back East.

Manning suspects our attraction to pets is closely related to our early relationship with wolves. “They were deadly animals but we still saw something cute in them and we fostered that through domestication,” he said.

Timothy LeCain, an associate professor of history at MSU, added to Manning’s theory, referring to environmental historian Edmund Russell’s 2011 volume, Evolutionary History. In this book, Russell explains that genes controlling tame behavior also control the development of other adult traits. According to the historian, hundreds of years of unconscious selection for docile animals has led to increased juvenile—or cute—characteristics in our pets.

“You’re breeding these animals so in some sense they don’t grow-up … it’s breeding for extended adolescence,” LeCain said.

Our attraction to all things cute helps explain why, in the U.S. alone, the pet industry surpassed $60 billion in 2015 and why, according to the pet market research group Packaged Facts, the industry will surpass $90 billion by 2019. Annual sales within the U.S. have more than doubled in the past 15 years, despite the economic downturn of the late 2000s.

Next time you see that puppy in the window that makes you gush, just remember: kinderschema is the science behind cuteness. And you’d better grab that pup before the drooling masses do.

This story first appeared in the winter 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.