“Dogs have hijacked our evolutionary tendencies”: the science of finding things cute

If something is cute because it looks like a baby, why do so many people find dogs cuter?

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Cute animals are the true kings and queens of the internet – but one animal dominates others. “Cats used to rule the internet: now dogs have taken over,” says Rachel Oates, professional pet photographer and the human behind the immensely popular @winnythecorgi Instagram account. And a highly unscientific survey of my friends, all in their early to mid-twenties, leads me to believe that she might be right: 70 per cent find dogs cuter than either cats or babies.

The science behind cuteness is complicated, but its fundamentals are well established. Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian zoologist and Nobel Prize winner, described what increases our perception of cuteness in a paper way back in 1948: big forehead, chubby cheeks, round eyes. In other words, cute is whatever looks like a baby.

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. Babies are helpless and dependent on adults: we have evolved to find them cute, so that we prioritise looking after them, instead of being distracted by decidedly uncute things such as the dementing vortex of anything and everything political on Twitter.

One study by researchers from the University of Lincoln used eye-tracking software to find that babies as young as three years old can differentiate between cute and non-cute. Our perception of cuteness is hardwired.

But this raises a question: if something is cute because it looks like a baby, why do so many people find dogs cuter? Cute dogs are cute because they look like babies – but, by definition, babies look more like babies than even the cutest of dogs.

The explanation as to why seems to involve the doom of climate-change, free-market capitalism and, of course, our dopaminergic reward system.

The popular subreddit /r/Cute sees so many types of cute animals uploaded every second that it’s hard to keep up. “The modern world isolates and alienates people,” one moderator tells me. “Cute pets and babies give a sense of connection: in that moment we feel human.”

Oates agrees. She argues that dog pictures are basically virtual therapy dogs: “People need that light and happiness, and they find it via dogs online.”

But escapism doesn’t explain why we find dogs cute in the first place. Dr Naomi Harvey is a Zoologist at the University of Nottingham currently studying the cuteness of rabbits. She says that dogs have “hijacked our evolutionary tendencies: they are better at being cute than babies are.” After all, they’re not as demanding. The noise made by babies is awful.

“Dogs are more fun,” she goes on. “Dogs exhibit all the lovely things babies do. They love you, they cuddle you. Dogs don’t grow out of that. They’ll give you all that validation.”

So are dogs considered cuter now than they were 20 years ago? Harvey doesn’t believe so, pointing out that it is more socially acceptable today for women to admit that they don’t find babies cute. Plus, she speculates, while we’ve always found dogs cute, “without social media you couldn’t indulge this feeling as much”.

Think how difficult previous generations would have found it to share pictures of their dogs. A person trying to do so would have had to take a picture of their pet, develop it, and then walk around, showing it to people individually. Which would be weird. But the internet has made it possible – acceptable, encouraged even – to share dozens, if not hundreds, of your pet pictures.

We have never had greater access to cute things than today.

Studies have shown that, when we see something cute, our orbitofrontal cortex is activated extremely quickly, which in turn activates our dopamine-associated reward processing pathways. Other studies have shown that cute animal videos make us feel happier.

But cuteness alone cannot explain how dogs took over the internet: nine out of the top ten pet Instagram accounts are now of dogs. This is no accident: there’s a lot of money in popular dogs on the internet. Dyson is a major pet Instagram sponsor (you need a vacuum cleaner to clear up all those dog hairs). There is a whole industry of pet-brand managers, too: their owners must continue to make their dogs look cuter, in order to get more eyeballs and love reacts.

Of course, animals have been used in advertising since advertising began: think of the ubiquity of the Dulux dogs or the Andrex puppies. A 2008 study concluded that animals in adverts effectively associated positive feelings with a brand. When you consider that every person in Britain now has favourable opinions about brands of the dullest of household items – toilet paper and buckets of paint – the power of dogs in advertising is plain to see.

That said, Dr Christine Parsons of Aarhus University says I shouldn’t write babies out of this cuteness competition so fast. When a baby is in the room, Parsons notes, most people will give it some attention. She also tells me to consider other aspects of a baby’s cuteness that a dog cannot match, such as their laugh, smell, or the “bidirectional feedback” we get from interacting with them.

One study that Parsons cites describes how particular our perception of cuteness can be. Participants were given images of cute babies, and images of cute babies with a cleft-palate. The participants found the babies with the more pronounced cleft palates less cute.

When this same test was repeated with images of dogs, however, the participants did not notice the changes so quickly. We are more familiar with human faces, so it is possible that we have higher standards for the cuteness of them – even when they’re babies.

But our standards for dog cuteness are increasing too. Parsons decries what she calls “cute-exemplars” of dogs online: “We’re going to need to exaggerate their features even further.” To explain, she highlights biologist Stephen J. Gould’s famed essay on Mickey Mouse, which describes how his cuteness was steadily amplified, from a rat-like figure to the big-eyed cartoon that we love him for today. Instagram is speeding up this process, but for real life animals.

There’s a dark side to this story: the rise of designer dogs in Britain, and the increased popularity of pugs and bulldogs – both heavily inbred breeds that struggle to breathe and see from the moment of birth. While the British Veterinary Association started its #breedtobreathe campaign last year attempting to raise awareness for the issue, many people appear naive about the dogs’ plight.

Parsons says that between the accessibility of cute animals and the quick dopamine hits we receive when we look at our phone, we are at risk of being desensitised to them. In the future, animals on the internet will have to get even cuter to satisfy us. The question is: at what cost?

Jason Murugesu is a postgraduate student in science communication at Imperial College London, and a former Wellcome Scholar at the New Statesman.