One of the more interesting psychological traits of humans is that they are drawn to things which are “cute”. Whether it’s a stuffed toy, a baby’s face, or a tiny kitten, we tend to want to protect and care for things that we find adorable and vulnerable.
While this is a somewhat universal truth of human existence, we rarely think about why this is the case. Like most things at the root cause of human nature, there is an evolutionary reason behind humans finding things cute. The first clue of this is that the types of creatures and objects that elicit squeals of delight from humans tend to share some common characteristics: they have a small size, large eyes, and rounded features. They often are also soft or cuddly. And, it turns out, these are characteristics of human babies. It is in our interest as a species to look after human babies, so evolution has made sure we developed an innate adaptation to want to take care of them.
The Chemicals of Cute
According to the University of Melbourne, “Researchers studied the brain activity when cute baby pictures were shown to subjects. The cuter the baby is, the more activation found in the pleasure centre of the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens. The cuteness causes a burst in the pleasure center -A happy feeling caused due to the release of dopamine. Turns out, the science of cuteness is more evolutionary rooted and far more interesting than you’d think. Cuteness is evolutions tricky way of triggering nurturing instincts in adults to look after anything that looks like a cute baby.”
So now that we know why humans find certain things cute, what do we know about how other species have adapted to that trait? A new study from Scientific Reports shows how dogs might have adapted their own behavior to play into what humans find cute and attractive. We’ve all heard the phrase “puppy dog eyes”—those cute, watery, big-eyed expressions that dogs give us when they want something like a treat. This research shows that these adorable “puppy dog eyes” that humans love to adore in their pets might have evolved as a response to human ownership. The study shows that "dogs do indeed produce facial expressions to communicate with people — although perhaps just to engage us, rather than to manipulate us,” according to Nature.com.
The specifics of the study are particularly interesting. Though the sample size was small, it found that “dogs produced more than twice as many facial expressions (‘puppy dog eyes’ was one of the most common) when a researcher was facing them than when she was turned away. But it didn't seem to matter whether she also held food. Earlier studies have shown that seeing food is more exciting to a dog than is social contact with a silent person, so something other than the dogs’ emotional state must have been responsible for the effect.”
This proves that responses like puppy dog eyes aren’t just to get something the dog wants (food) but perhaps because they know that we will bond and care for them more if we find them cute or attractive. Though we may need more research to confirm this hypothesis, this study does show that the presence of humans does change the dog’s behavior.
As Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who has used brain scans to explore dog behaviour noted, the next area of study might be to determine if dogs behave differently depending on the identity of the human present. “My impression is that dogs frequently attempt to communicate with us humans, but we are not very good at recognizing the signs.”