It’s official, puppies and kittens are cuter than humans

We’ve long known that babies of any species are cute. Is it an evolutionary advantage to help infants survive to adulthood? The jury’s still out, but to give this idea credence, you only have to see the footage of fierce lions sheltering orphaned baboons and dogs nurturing piglets. Whether or not animals think cubs and babies are cute, at least in human the reaction of an ‘aww’ is such a normalized phenomenon that scientists actually have a name for it.

The way that adults respond with caregiving behavior when they see a cute baby face is called the ‘baby schema response’. Now research by Italian researcher, Marta Borgi, with Professor Kerstin Meints at the School of Psychology, Lincoln University and Dr. Francesca Cirulli at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Rome, Italy, has ascertained that this response emerges at an early age.

Her work aims to shed light on this phenomenon, finding that even children think babies are cute.

Furthermore, it isn’t restricted to discerning human adults from babies, but also across different species, and in order of preference, they rank puppies highest, kittens next, and humans at a distant third place.

To test this, the researchers digitally manipulated the baby schema, or cuteness, in images of humans, dogs, and cats — showing adults as well as babies, the images — some of whom were made to look cuter than they really are, by making their eyes larger, their foreheads smaller and their chins less pointy.

The researchers analyzed responses of adults as well as 3–6 year-old children, using both explicit ratings and implicit measures like eye gaze patterns.

“By means of eye-tracking, we assessed children’s preferential attention to the modified images and we asked participants to judge both human and animal faces in terms of cuteness.”

Previous studies have shown that images of human infants and children present very attractive stimuli for adults, especially for women. “Surprisingly, in our study both children and adults rated images of dogs and cats as cuter than images of humans. So puppies and kittens may represent a more attractive stimulus than babies!” said Borgi.

That’s not all. “Our results confirm human positive appraisal toward animals that appears only partially dependent on the presence of infantile features and not directly linked with familiarity with them, for example, pet ownership,” said Borgi. In fact, regardless of cuteness and digital manipulation, animal faces were rated as cuter than human faces by both children and adult participants.

Although it’s surprising, she continued, this result confirms human interest and attraction to other species, especially the most common pet species, dogs and cats.

This research lays the foundation for further work on why and how humans develop cognitive and psychological preferences for infants and even other species.

These days, as animals are increasingly being used in therapeutic, military, and even educational settings (think cat cafes in Japan and therapy dogs for injured veterans and autistic children), it’s important to understand these human-animal relationships. Educational programs that work on preventing dog bites can learn from this whether a dog’s cuteness may be so attractive to children that they overlook or fail to recognize when an animal is stressed.

Similarly, says Borgi, “It seems that there is an association between cuteness and adoptability in kennel dogs and it would be interesting to explore to what extent animal appearance, specifically animal cuteness, influences owner-pet interaction style and care behavior toward pets.” Here’s hoping that every underdog has his day.

Image credit: Thinkstock/Getty Images (modified).
This piece originally appeared in
Popular Science India. Reprinted with permission. Chhavi Sachdev reserves the right to be identified as its author.

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