Cuteness, babies and how to make humans go “awww”

It is not a stretch to say that everyone finds young, tiny creatures cute. Even if people do not particularly like dogs, they will almost always react positively to a puppy. Human babies are much cuter than teenagers (but cockroaches or bed bugs, no matter how small, do not really get the best reaction from us). It is pretty obvious that there is something in some babies—be it human or any other mammal, that makes them just adorable. This claim is even backed up by science!

Konrad Lorenz, a zoologist, called this the baby schema. He pointed out that adults seemed to respond favourably to slightly exaggerated  head sizes, big eyes, small noses and chubby cheeks. This response includes caretaking behaviour- and even smiling! This also explains why we find pandas, kitten or puppies cute but generally do not want to pet a baby lizard or cockroach—the insects, however tiny, do not have those “adorable” features.

In a research of development psychology, Hildebrandt and Fitzgerald in 1999 studied facial feature sizes and overall “cuteness”. Their findings suggested that a “cute” baby has large eyes, large forehead, mixed with short and narrow facial features. A similar experiment was conducted by Melanie L Glocker and her colleagues in 2009. The research used photo-manipulation (which refers to editing the photos by the means of a software) to reduce the extraneous variables such as hairstyle, gender, eye colour and even facial symmetry. They found that baby schema was perceived as cute, and motivated adults to care more for babies.

The reason for this perceived cuteness is based in the evolutionary sciences. Researchers studied the brain activity in adults when they were shown baby photos. They found that the cuter the baby, the more the pleasure center of the brain (called the Nucleus Accumbens) was activated. They also found that the baby schemas allocate increased attention resources to infant faces. This means not only does our brain feel extremely happy when seeing infants, but we also tend to pay more attention to those cute faces!

Neoteny can be defined as the juvenile retention of baby schema features in adult bodies. Scientists and evolutionary biologists theorize that humans might have evolved to be a neotenized version of baby apes. Humans have a smooth, vertical forehead, the big eyes and the inward jaws. Humans are also bipedal (they walk on two legs instead of all fours)- a trait that is seen in most gorilla and chimp infants. Researchers have also found that humans share the same genes for development as chimpanzees, but the time these genes are activated is vastly different. The retention of the baby-like features in early humans would have meant an extended childhood, which basically gave the brains a much longer time to develop. This is incredibly important, as human pelvises are quite narrow, and hence cannot give birth to a large head. Because of this, most of the development of the brain happens outside the womb.

Baby schema is also extremely beneficial to the survival of any species. If humans perceive their little ones cute, they are more likely to take care of them (no matter how annoying a baby’s cry at 3 am seems). Not to mention the caretaking behaviour the infantile features illicit. The baby schema is especially helpful as it correlates to the levels of cross species adoptions or pet keeping- which is a huge survival bonus for puppies, kittens, chicks and other infant animals.

One of the most interesting side-effects of the reaction humans have towards baby schema is that they find all babies cute. Research seems to agree that when humans notice the “baby schema” features in other animals, they automatically find them cute. And most of these features can be found in almost every animal mammal- from baby pandas to dolphins. In fact, the reactions humans have to the baby schema is so hardwired in our brain, we even find it in inanimate objects. For example, we love baby Groot from the Guardians of the Galaxy series!

In fact, the animators of Groot were not the only one who noticed that enticing a reaction in humans is as easy as two big eyes, a big head, floppy arms and bad coordination. Animators have been anthropomorphized (read: given human characteristics) to their creations for as long as cartoons have been around. Think Spongebob, Courage the cowardly dog, and even beloved Mickey Mouse- all of these characters are extremely human-like in some way or the other- and they all fit in the definition of cute. Spongebob has huge eyes and a childlike demeanor and Courage has a relatively small body to his head and is always afraid. But perhaps the best example is Mickey Mouse. In his aptly titled essay, Mickey Mouse meets Konrad Lorenz, Michael Gould explains how in 50 years, the Walt Disney Studio completely neotenized Mickey, from being a naughty, small eyed and lean bodied mouse- to a well behaved, plump little munchkin that’s adored around the world.

Animators are not the only ones profiting off neoteny and baby schemas, though. Dog breeders have changed the way most breeds look, just so they can retain their puppy features well into adulthood. The labradoodle, a breed that first appeared in 1955, is a cross between the labrador and a poodle. They remain relatively small, have droopy ears, and are extremely good at getting an “awww” from people. And while labradoodles do not really face too many health issues in their lifetime, not all dog breeds are that lucky. Cross Breeding for infantile features in pugs lead to a plethora of health issues that seriously reduce their lifespan to a mere 8-10 years. Pugs and bulldogs that are bred specifically for their smushed faces have a lot of problems- They cannot breathe properly, tend to have a lot of back issues and generally stay sleep deprived since they have trouble breathing while lying down. Neoteny, hence, has created a Frankenstein monster breed that struggles everyday of its life- just because humans find them cute.

Sadly, humans also put other humans under a lot of criticism because of neoteny. The Kawaii culture, most prominent in Japan, is based off the basic baby schema features described by Konrad Lorenz. Also seen in anime and manga- most northeast Asians seem to really dig the younger look. Women in Korea constantly go under the knife to get the puffy eyed look. Teenagers in Thailand are fitting fake braces on themselves to look younger. Even Buddhist monks represent children in many ways- from the bald heads to clear and childlike minds. While it is not that prominent in the west, the dedication most women go through to look younger really shows. Most women have shaved or waxed their legs, or added mascara and eyeliner to make their eyes pop- all these provide an illusion of a younger looking face. Snapchat and Instagram face filters also slim down the face, pop the eyes and add the extra cute baby voice- all because it is what people like to look at & look like. (While Asian men have started to embrace neoteny, males in the west still have a long way to go.)

While neoteny is a basic evolutionary advantage that humans had, today’s society and culture largely determines how we look at it. We are more likely to buy a dog that is conventionally “cuter”  but has a lot of health or behaviour issues, rather than adopting one we find on the street that may have not retained its infantile features. The book Dataclysm, written by Christian Rudder (the co-founder of OkCupid, one of the oldest online dating websites), suggests that men are also more likely to like women who look younger and hence more youthful. UK’s anti ageing skincare industry stands at almost a billion pounds a year- based only off the fact that humans find “younger” features more likeable. Baby Schema and neoteny truly is everywhere. And there is no telling how human faces will evolve to suit this weird obsession. It certainly is possible that humans will develop larger heads, bigger eyes and smaller limbs as an effect of natural selection. But if this timeline does come true, who knows what lies in the future for the infants- the ones who really need the care and response that baby schema brings about. Perhaps, they will simply get cuter!

Harshi Shetty