Why Are Puppies So Cute?

Puppies 101: What puppies can teach us about psychology.

Posted Mar 21, 2020

Nancy Darling
Loki: 10 weeks
Source: Nancy Darling

Everyone responds differently to stress. Our family adopted a puppy.  

It wasn't a casual decision. We had been talking about it for 18 months. I'd been lurking on PetFinder for over a year and making inquiries with friends and family since last summer.  

But this week, it happened. Meet Loki.

Apparently, I'm not alone. Shelters have been flooded with volunteers to foster animals in the past few weeks.   

It's a particularly good time for our family because four adults are sheltering at home, and young puppies need a lot of attention to be well trained and socialized. We have the time! Shelters need as much help as they can, as animals keep coming in, and strict hygiene measures make it especially challenging to arrange for pets and new families to meet right now. 

Babyness

So this is the first in a series on what puppies can teach us about psychology. 

Nancy Darling
Loki: 6 Weeks
Source: Nancy Darling

In developmental psychology, "babyness" is the idea that certain visual qualities evoke a strong caregiving response in humans. Kittens, anime characters, and infants typically evoke an "Aww..." As a developmental psychologist, I know that as soon as I flash a baby—any kind of baby—up on a screen, the whole class will melt.

The qualities that do that are well established:

  • Small size (it's so cute!)
  • Large head relative to the body
  • Large eyes relative to the head
  • Eyes low in the face
  • Round cheeks and bulbous forehead
  • Small nose and chin

Walt Disney Studios has mastered the use of babyness in its animations. Sympathetic characters tend to be smaller and have many of the features described as "babyish." More aggressive villains do not. They are thinner, have smaller heads and eyes, longer noses, sharper chins, and (of course) bigger teeth. Interestingly, the "harmers" (sidekicks of the bad guys often added for humor) have a mix of qualities that include both babyish features and those of villains.

John Bowlby—following Darwin and others—hypothesized that "babyness" was part of the human attachment system. Attachment theory postulates that the attachment system serves to keep infants close to caregivers so that they are protected from harm and can use their attachment figures (typically parents) as a secure base for exploration. Attachment is from infant to caregiver. But the attachment system also includes a caregiver system that is—as it sounds—from the (typically) parent to helpless infant or child.

 Thinkstock/Getty Images (modified).
Borgi et al. (2014) created stimuli that manipulated "babyness" in stock images.
Source: Thinkstock/Getty Images (modified).

The caregiver system in humans is thought to be evoked by babyness, by whining or crying, and by other evoking stimuli, which the small being in need of care emits. Most people immediately respond to these characteristics by a release of oxytocin—the "cuddle" hormone—and a flush of warm feeling and the desire to soothe and snuggle whoever or whatever is emitting the stimuli. Even very young children respond that way. In an experimental manipulation of "cuteness," Borgi and colleagues (2014) found that children as young as 3 to 6 years olds looked preferentially at more babyish faces and wanted to nurture and care for them. The more infantile the features (round face, high forehead, big eyes, small nose and mouth), the more they looked and the cuter they were perceived to be.  

Baby animals are even cuter than baby humans.

Both adults and young children preferred looking at animals to human faces. The authors write:

"Independently of the degree of baby schema, adult and children in our study showed a more positive appraisal for animal than for human stimuli, and, among animals, they gave the highest score to the dog followed by the cat (an effect that disappeared when viewing young faces: puppies and kittens received a similar score). Humans' positive response toward animals (e.g., preference for animal over inanimate and human stimuli, positive behaviors directed to animals), as well as the highest rate of the dog, were previously shown in a number of studies (DeLoache et al., 2011; Lobue et al., 2012; Borgi and Cirulli, 2013)."

As I said, puppies (and kittens) are cute. Interestingly, people's responses were independent of pet ownership. 

Despite our preference for dogs and cats, our response is remarkably robust. Several years ago, I wrote a piece on babyness that focused on chickens. Adult chickens are described in many ways, but "cute" is rarely among them. Chicks, on the other hand, are adorable. I was at a farm shop the other day, and each tub of spring chicks was surrounded by a small mass of cooing children and adults.

Younger is not more babyish.

Interestingly, younger is not necessarily more babyish. Above, you can see two pictures of Loki: one at six weeks and one at ten. Although both have many "babyish" qualities, they are different. In the younger photo, Loki is thinner and—in this photo—it looks like he has a longer nose. In my (owner-biased) opinion, he is cuter as a 10-week-old. 

That makes sense—he was a very sick little puppy at six weeks. He is now boundingly healthy. Humans tend to respond with caregiving, but are less attracted to infants who are thinner—and likely less healthy—compared to those with round, chubby cheeks.

Many dogs bred to be lap dogs retain their "puppiness" into adulthood. Almost all have very short noses, small mouths, bulbous foreheads, and large heads. They retain their cuteness for a lifetime.

And that makes them all the easier to love.

Facebook image: OlesyaNickolaeva/Shutterstock