Daniel Dennett has advanced the opinion that the evolutionary purpose of the cuteness response in humans is to make us respond positively to babies.  This does seem plausible.  Babies are pretty cute, after all.  It's a tempting explanation.

Here is one of the cutest baby pictures I found on a Google search.

And this is a bunny.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the bunny is about 75,119 times cuter than the baby.

Now, bunnies are not evolutionarily important for humans to like and want to nurture.  In fact, bunnies are edible.  By rights, my evolutionary response to the bunny should be "mmm, needs a sprig of rosemary and thirty minutes on a spit".  But instead, that bunny - and not the baby or any other baby I've seen - strikes the epicenter of my cuteness response, and being more baby-like along any dimension would not improve the bunny.  It would not look better bald.  It would not be improved with little round humanlike ears.  It would not be more precious with thumbs, easier to love if it had no tail, more adorable if it were enlarged to weigh about seven pounds.

If "awwww" is a response designed to make me love human babies and everything else that makes me go "awwww" is a mere side effect of that engineered reaction, it is drastically misaimed.  Other responses for which we have similar evolutionary psychology explanations don't seem badly targeted in this way.  If they miss their supposed objects at all, at least it's not in most people.  (Furries, for instance, exist, but they're not a common variation on human sexual interest - the most generally applicable superstimuli for sexiness look like at-least-superficially healthy, mature humans with prominent human sexual characteristics.)  We've invested enough energy into transforming our food landscape that we can happily eat virtual poison, but that's a departure from the ancestral environment - bunnies?  All natural, every whisker.1

It is embarrassingly easy to come up with evolutionary psychology stories to explain little segments of data and have it sound good to a surface understanding of how evolution works.  Why are babies cute?  They have to be, so we'll take care of them.  And then someone with a slightly better cause and effect understanding turns it right-side-up, as Dennett has, and then it sounds really clever.  You can have this entire conversation without mentioning bunnies (or kittens or jerboas or any other adorable thing).  But by excluding those items from a discussion that is, ostensibly, about cuteness, you do not have a hypothesis that actually fits all of the data - only the data that seems relevant to the answer that presents itself immediately.

Evo-psych explanations are tempting even when they're cheaply wrong, because the knowledge you need to construct ones that sound good to the educated is itself not cheap at all. You have to know lots of stuff about what "motivates" evolutionary changes, reject group selection, understand that the brain is just an organ, dispel the illusion of little XML tags attached to objects in the world calling them "cute" or "pretty" or anything else - but you also have to account for a decent proportion of the facts to not be steering completely left of reality.

Humans are frickin' complicated beasties.  It's a hard, hard job to model us in a way that says anything useful without contradicting information we have about ourselves.  But that's no excuse for abandoning the task.  What causes the cuteness response?  Why is that bunny so outrageously adorable?  Why are babies, well, pretty cute?  I don't know - but I'm pretty sure it's not the cheap reason, because evolution doesn't want me to nurture bunnies.  Inasmuch as it wants me to react to bunnies, it wants me to eat them, or at least be motivated to keep them away from my salad fixings.


1It is possible that the bunny depicted is a domestic specimen, but it doesn't look like it to me.  In any event, I chose it for being a really great example; there are many decidedly wild animals that are also cuter than cute human babies.

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I would find this argument much more convincing if it were supported by people who actually have children. My mother goes beserk over a smiling infant in a way I cannot begin to comprehend (I am usually afraid I will accidentally hurt them). My husband, likewise, has an instant affinity for babies and always tries to communicate and play with them. He was raised Jewish with the idea that it is unclean to have animals in the home and does not find animals particularly adorable. In our culture we are inundated with anthropomorphised images of animals in television and given stuffed toys and pets that we take care of like children. It's not that surprising that we find animals cute when we focus so much attention on them as if they were little people. I do not know that such evaluations of 'cuteness' would hold cross-culturally, especially in cultures where people do kill and eat 'cute' animals on a regular basis.

Other hominids have been known to keep pets. I would not be surprised if cetaceans were capable of this as well, though it would obviously be more difficult to demonstrate.
Where is he from, if you don't mind my asking? The Jewish cultures in the United States that I'm familiar with are okay with pets.
Monroe, NY (though he is not a Hassid!) It's not that they have a strict prohibition on pets, more of a general disapproval from appeal to cleanliness. I don't know how the super-orthodox interpret the Torah on this matter.
This isn't a issue from anything coming from the Torah. Rather, a dislike of dogs likely stems from anti-Semites in Eastern Europe having their dogs attack Jews, and later the use of dogs by the Nazis to keep concentration camp inmates in line. However, there's is some connection to cleanliness issues also. Some people claim that the Jewish home should mirror the historical Temple in Jerusalem and thus should not have any non-kosher animals in it at all. See this essay which discusses this in more detail.

"Drastically misaimed" really says nothing about whether or not a cuteness instinct would be a good adaptation, though. A counterexample: it's a fact that our visual systems are acutely sensitive to rapidly-moving things. The evo-bio hypothesis is that this is predator detection. Does the fact that 99.999999% of the rapidly-moving things I notice aren't predators negate this hypothesis as well?

I can't think of very many cases in which people endanger themselves or their reproductive chances for the sake of cute animals. I'm sure it's happened once or twice, but using this argument means demonstrating that the number of potential children lost due to finding bunnies cute is greater than the number of actual children attended to due to finding them cute.

As an aside, I think that Google in this case is adding to the confusion. The evo-bio cuteness theory is generally stated as being about a system that detects facial markers that strongly differentiate babies from adults - the key ones being eyes large relative to head size, pursed mouths, round cheeks, and round chins. Some baby animals, when viewed up close in Google, display some of these characteristics. In the wild, however, baby animals are almost never seen up close, and even when they are, they trigger the facial recognition systems only in dribs and drabs, like bad CG.

mattalyst said:

A counterexample: it's a fact that our visual systems are acutely sensitive to rapidly-moving things. The evo-bio hypothesis is that this is predator detection. Does the fact that 99.999999% of the rapidly-moving things I notice aren't predators negate this hypothesis as well?

Nope, because the rapidly-moving things that are predators matter way more. False negatives in predator-detection are more costly than false positives by orders of magnitude.

I can't think of very many cases in which people endanger themselves or their reproductive chances for the sake of cute animals. I'm sure it's happened once or twice, but using this argument means demonstrating that the number of potential children lost due to finding bunnies cute is greater than the number of actual children attended to due to finding them cute.

Excellent observation. Perhaps some people find baby animals of other species cuter due to evolutionary baggage from common ancestors, which has never needed to go away because it didn't hurt our reproductive success.

n the wild, however, baby animals are almost never seen up close, and even when they are, they trigger the facial recognition systems only in dribs and drabs, like bad CG.

That's my intuition, also.

"I can't think of very many cases in which people endanger themselves or their reproductive chances for the sake of cute animals." A) Drivers swerving to avoid cats and bunnies etc. B) All the warnings about leaving bear cubs alone. I can think of non-cuteness explanations that probably cover some part of each but it seems idle to reject any role for cuteness in those survivability risks.
I think that any situation that could not have occurred prior to the 20. century can be discarded out of hand when discussing the evolutionary roots of human behavior.
In English it's not idiomatic to write ordinal numbers by adding a full stop after the cardinal, as it is in German. Normally one writes “20th” (with the “th” optionally superscripted).
0Rob Bensinger11y
Interesting, I wasn't aware of the German convention. It seems slightly better; formulations like '1st' (1 stands for 'fir'?) and '2nd' (2 stands for 'seco'?) and '3rd' (3 stands for 'thi'?) never made much sense.
As for me, I dislike stuff that looks like the end of a sentence but actually isn't or vice versa, so I feel very uneasy when I have to use something ending with a full stop (e.g. “etc.”) immediately followed by something starting with a capital letter (e.g. “I” or a proper name), and I try to avoid that by reworking punctuation to make it clear whether or not I'm starting a new sentence. (Even in iii's comment where “century” starts with a lowercase letter, some part of my brain alieves that there are two separate sentences.)

I agree that evolutionary psychology is very prone to abuse and should probably usually be avoided, but this seems like a terrible example to me. The hypothesis that cuteness is our evolved response to baby-like features does NOT predict that babies will be the cutest thing.

5Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
Very compactly put. The data simply do not contradict the theory in the first place.
What does the hypothesis predict?
That organisms which don't have offspring that look like human babies will not experience the same things as cute as humans do.
I don't think I understand. The hypothesis says that we evolved to find human babies cute because people who find babies cute are more likely to take care of them and then they'll reproduce and propagate those genes. I guess there's no strong reason why that necessarily means that we have to find human babies cuter than anything else: if the "appreciating cuteness" faculty happened for some random reason to glom extra hard onto bunnies there probably there wouldn't be any very strong selective pressure against it (though as Alicorn points out, there would probably be some slight pressure). Is that what you mean?
Another thing to keep in mind is Eliezer's example of finding a human baby in the woods. Or worse yet, on your doorstep. In other words, the cuteness reaction can arguably work against you by making you vulnerable to cuckoldry.
Yes. I would also guess that the framing of this problem is also the cause of some of the confusion. As others have noted, newborns are not the optimal target of a cuteness response, that would be something more like four year olds, e.g. maximally expensive children with a large sunk cost. Also, Alicorn may have unusual perceptions of cuteness and no-one may have wanted to contradict a perception. I just actually looked at Google Images and my conclusion is that babies are cuter than bunnies, though not by enough that as a good frequentest I could refute that null hypotheses that bunnies and babies are the same thing. My wife and I have previously observed, while walking in the park, that as the theory predicts boy babies are cuter than girls except when the girls are Chinese, presumably due to the greater parental investment required by boys and the history of unusually frequent female infanticide in China.
It does not, but consider 2 adaptations: A: responds to babies and more strongly to bunnies B: responds to babies only B would seem more adaptive. Why didn't humans evolve it? Plausible explanation: A is more simple and therefore more likely to result from a random DNA fluctuation.  Is anyone doing research into which kinds of adaptations are more likely to appear like this?

How come everyone is missing the obvious answer? The human ancestor that first developed attachment to babies may be an ancestor we share with rabbits.

(Edit, Also: Human babies may have evolved to be uglier for other reasons -less hair, bigger heads- and those features may have been selected for more than cuteness.)

Edit 2: Metaphorically, our cuteness program is like running Netscape Navigator 1.0 or something. It sort of does the trick but isn't exactly adapted for modern uses

I agree with Jack: large eyes embedded in a small puffy face are general mammalian triggers for cuteness. Humans thinking that kittens are cute is just an accident.

Though 'accident' isn't the right word. Mammalian mechanisms are simply very general among mammals and robust. I read this somewhere and assimilated it as obviously true. And then I experienced how true it was when I had kids.

We're always 'being mammals' but I guess we're somewhat desensitized to the mammalian things we do every day. During pregnancy, childbirth and raising a child, a whole slew of new behaviors are activated and it's just amazing to realize the extent to which behaviors are instinctual and rely on physical mechanisms like tactile stimulation, visual cues and internal timers.

Breast-feeding of course. Did you know that breast-feeding is an interactive activity, where the baby has to suck of course, but also the mother needs to 'let down' the milk supply? Tactile stimulation (like sucking or kneading) will trigger 'let down', but also it can be triggered if the mother just thinks about her baby being cute. Women often have a lot of trouble 'pumping' milk for later use because the apparatus doesn't mimic hu... (read more)

Then I repeat my question: please give examples of non-primate mammalian behaviors that indicate the animal found an animal of a different species "cute". A second question: does your theory allows distinguishing between "cuteness" reaction and nurturing/baby-raising protective behavior?
Mine doesn't. I think that instinctual mechanisms for "nurturing/baby-raising protective behavior" is a really big deal for mammals, so much so that the mechanisms have a tendency to be overly robust. (E.g., some men lactate.) However, I would defer to an expert on this, and would ask one (read a book) if something rested upon the question. I look forward to the day when we can scan an animal brain and see what they think and feel. Till then, I can't comment on whether animals think their babies are 'cute'. There's no doubt though that nurturing/baby-raising protective behavior is triggered across species. However it seems context-dependent: the parenting animal must have reason to consider the baby part of the family. So domesticated animals are likely to show this behavior to other pets and babies. (My cat tried to teach my first baby how to hunt when she started crawling, but didn't bother with the second.) Birds will take care of other birds if they're in the nest, etc. And of course there's Tarzan, which might have been based on some kind of observation of this kind.
I think 'response-to-cute-stimuli' can be usefully defined on a behavioral level too. I suggest this definition: the animal is interested in the cute-animal, often despite being strangers; it spends time looking at it or touching it, plays with it or talks to it (depending on the animal's species-typical behavior). But it eventually forgets about it, leaves it behind (or allows it to depart), and does not protect or feed it - as it would an adopted baby. Doing these last things goes beyond "owww it's cute!" and constitutes parenting behavior. The question is - do animals reliably exhibit non-parenting behavior of the sort described above, and towards what patterns of other animals?
There are a number of stories of mammals 'adopting' babies of other species in zoos. Here's one example. There seem to have been some misleading emails including pictures related to this story but as far as I can tell it is true that there have been instances of both a pig raising tiger cubs and a tiger raising piglets.
I have to admit, I wouldn't have thought of this.
That would explain how it is we can find rabbits cute at all. But to find them equally or more cute than human babies would seem to not be explained by your answer.
Because I don't consider it plausible. The 'cuteness' response is just far more malleable than the, you know, bit where you aren't a rabbit. See, for example, all the other sensory preferences that are are finely honed per species. EDIT: I will add that it is slightly more plausible to me that rabbits are cute because they look more like baby ancestral primates than baby humans do on some key features (little and fury). Even so I would be reluctant to assign too much confidence to such a theory.
I'm not sure the answer is so obvious. For example, baby pinguins and other birds can be very cute; baby lizards usually aren't. I think the theory goes that we've evolved from something that looks somewhat lizardy, but definitely not like a bird.
I rest my case.
I just knew someone would come up with something like this :-) indeed it looks cute. One could take it even a step further; look at the weird but cute-looking space aliens in this Moby video. This actually supports the notion that cuteness is not necessarily proportional to the likeliness to humans or to our ancestors.
Yeah, it definitely isn't a perfect theory. It is obvious in the sense that it is the logical conclusion to come to if you held the Dennet theory and then had alicorn's evidence presented to you. The main thing is that there is no reason to think that the cuteness instinct is a product of recent evolution.
Do we know whether adult rabbits find baby rabbits cute? If not, that would count against the common ancestor hypothesis.
Do we know whether adult non-primate mammals find anything cute? What's a description of their behavior in such a case? So far I've only seen descriptions of animals adopting other-species young to raise. I think child-raising instincts are separate from cuteness responses, in other animals as well as in humans.
Do we know whether adult non-primate mammals find anything cute? Very occasionally
And not for long. From the comments on the article you linked, the cheetahs happily ate the impala. Go to http://www.biosphoto.com/ and search for "cheetah AND impala". You'll find these photos as well as the ones from a few minutes later... Is your theory that cats playing with live food before killing it is, in general, an effect of the food's cuteness?
I believe that's a different sort of play, consisting of repeated chasing and catching.
Also in the comments, the assertion that the impala that was eaten was an adult eaten earlier. Once sated, the cheetahs were not interested in eating the younger impala.
True, it's not clear which is the complete account. At the very least, photos of some impala(s) being eaten and of this one being played with were seemingly taken in one session.
Good question. It didn't appear until here. The obvious answer is that cuteness does in fact serve purposes distinct from making people nurture every baby they come across.
I don't get it. This other purpose is nutritive?
Maintaining a food source until a better time to eat it seems like a somewhat better reason to find bunnies cute than because they look like babies. Particularly because eating or at least killing other people's babies is a strategy that some of our near primate relatives use. Significant evidence could persuade me but I'm just not seeing it.
There may be reasons for experiencing "cute" besides stimulating parental care, but I'm skeptical about the food-source-theory because I think things are cute independent of their nutritive value. The only connection may be that adult herbivores tend be cuter than adult carnivores, and they also taste better. Nevertheless, I was thinking about what kinds of food I think are cute. And this brought me in an entirely different direction. Anything miniature is cute. (Even a mini-paperclip.) Is this a different sense of cute again? Is our parental duty stimulated so broadly we can experience it in response to a mini-hamburger?
That's an interesting take on it. I was going along a similar train of thought of 'anything miniature is cute'. I just didn't interpret it as parental. I took it as 'Miniature things are barely worth it but are growing extremely fast. Throw it back and eat it when it is ten times the nutritional value in a couple of weeks!' My surprise would then be that we experience even in response to things that are not a 'mini-burger'. I'm not going to benefit from eating clippy unless I am iron deficient and I embed him in an apple for a while to rust before I eat it!
Your comment made me wonder about the dietary availability of rust, which seems rather low - the paperclip might not even be useful then!
Hrm... with regards to your edit, wouldn't there still then be the pressures for our "cuteness criteria" to evolve to prefer the new look of babies?
Maybe. It depends. The precise function our cuteness response had for ancestors might be fulfilled by some other feature or perhaps the ancestral environment didn't select individuals that way. Or maybe the cuteness criteria did evolve a little... just not has fast as our physical features did. Actually, I think we should expect it to evolve slower than our physical features just because plenty less-cute individuals will survive.
But then shouldn't we expect similar stuff to happen for rabbits? for them to evolve away from the primordial shared cuteness criteria? Actually, wait... human babies are rather more helpless than the babies of most other mammals, right? Shouldn't more helplessness, more (and longer) dependence on adults result in stronger perception of cuteness of them? (via shifts in their appearance and our criteria)? Okay, now I'm just plain confused!
They may have. Just not as much. I don't think the reason modern humans take care of their children is just about how cute they are. We've developed additional instincts to encourage child rearing (cultural pressure, some more specialized attachments that individual parents have with just their children and not with other cute things). This is what I mean by the function being fulfilled by another feature. This isn't evidence of anything in particular but cuteness feels sort of cognitively primitive, doesn't it? Like fear? I don't know if associating qualia like that is a permissible inference. I've actually ranked this hypothesis third behind "Babies are cuter after all." and "Coincidental superstimulus".
It's not much of a coincidence if most mammals have similar parental care-inducing cues - including big eyes. Nor is it a coincidence that baby rabbits exhibit such infantile traits more than human children do - this post deliberately chose rabbits as an example because they have cute babies. I rate all this as not adding up to a coincidence at all.
"An". "An" obvious answer. There's at least one other which has been proposed in other replies to this post: social conditioning. I have to say that yours is quite interesting, however. What else does it predict?
That instincts are orders of magnitude slower to evolve than physical attributes at the scale of 'people and bunnies'.
The instincts have to reference physical attributes to identify cute things. If physical appearance evolves so quickly, how can the instinct continue to apply to it? IOW, to accept this theory, it is necessary to believe that the things we find cute are all similar to that shared ancestor (or shared-ancestral juvenile). Does anyone know if this actually makes sense within what we know of ur-Mammalian creatures?
If attraction instincts (cuteness or sexual) evolve much more slowly than physical attributes, then shouldn't supermodels be chimpier than they are?
Is 'supermodels' supposed to be shorthand for 'highly sexually attractive'? Supermodels are not generally the women who are the most sexually attractive to heterosexual males but are selected for a variety of other attributes such as a 'striking' appearance, height and extreme slenderness. That said, women who are considered very sexually attractive are not particularly chimpy either. They do share other traits that are not as common amongst supermodels however.
This pretty much convinced me that the fine variances of sexiness have much more to do with memes than genes. It shouldn't be hard to test if it is the case with cuteness as well: just find a culture that hasn't been exposed to Disney/Pixar films.
Not that hard to do. Look at woman representations in art. Until the last century, they were quite different from current photo-models. (I tend to think of most of them as “fat”, despite the fact that I know they’ve better reproductive characteristics.)
Yes. But there is no reason to think the cuteness attraction instinct and the sexual attraction instinct evolve at the same rate or even at a rate of the same order of magnitude. Finding offspring less cute than your ancestors did is far less likely to lead to genetic death than failing to mate with those with the best traits. That seems obvious to me anyway, I could be wrong.
That lots of other animals should share our opinions about cuteness.
How about, the closer something is to human, the more cute? Since there will be 2 million years of pressure honing 'cuteness' to primate needs, and counteracting the x million years of pressure about rabbits.
In that case the fact that other animals are often much cuter than humans completely refutes the theory.
It sure does.
Not if the the cuteness effect was overwhelmed by selection for other traits. That is the part I added on edit. It might be that we're still working with the cuteness criteria of rabbit-like ancestors.
'other trait'? Unless you have a specific other factor in mind, it's just a fully general counterargument. (I nullify your other traits with other-other traits!)
Huh? The traits in us that make babies less cute than bunnies. Hairlessness appears to be a popular example (most people think furry things are cute), there may be more. Maybe baby eyes are smaller relative to their head than bunnies because of selection for larger brains. It is true that you can't disprove the hypothesis by finding trait that makes bunnies cuter than babies that I haven't thought of. The argument is general in that sense. But we can evaluate the hypothesis in the case of each trait. Name a trait and then we can see if our explanation of that trait is the kind of thing that would be selected for over cuteness.
Why would our cuteness criteria have not changed to reflect baby traits (like small eyes which are selected for on non-cute grounds)?
Well, an obvious explanation would be that it didn't have time to. Since Jack's theory claims it's an old trait, it might be embedded deep in an old structure of the brain (IIRC at least some emotions are seated very deep), and it might be hard to change, in the sense that most mutations that would make babies seem cuter would have other deleterious effects. As long as people find babies cute enough, the selection effect from the bad effects would delay the change until the rare mutations that don't have bad effects happen. Also, note that our cuteness criteria don't matter that much unless one has a baby. I've heard enough reports of (and had some first hand experience with) people that didn't care much about babies before they had them, but then had a “revelatory” experience once they met them. This suggests there's a separate effect (pheromones, hormones, whatever) that makes up for whatever inefficiency in human cuteness criteria, but that mostly activates just when it matters. This would also reduce the evolutionary pressure for any “general” cuteness criteria adjustment. Note also that our “badly adjusted” criteria were not a big deal (in the sense of decreasing reproductive fitness) during most of human evolution. Animals tend to hide their young and protect them, so encountering a cute puppy or kitty would have been a rare occasion for almost all people.
A bad one; it's something like 2 million years back to our LCA with our nearest primate relatives, and I wouldn't want to guess how many tens of millions back to our last common ancestor with the rabbits. What deep structure would be blocking decamillions of years of pressure? Again, you can hypothesize all sorts of outside reasons but without any specific reason... Everyone deals with babies at some point, from evolution's perspective. You are a baby, you interact with babies, you have babies, you raise babies, etc. Mothers may be a good target for a massive dose of brainwashing hormones & chemicals (lord knows they'll need it), but a love of babies and cuteness is valuable for dads as well (where there is no convenient set of biological triggers like giving birth) and other relatives. The domestication of dogs could have begun as long ago as ~100,000 years; and even so, this is just an argument for weak pressures.
I agree with most of this, but I think it's not countering what I was trying to argue: With regards to a certain individual's reproductive fitness, the “precision” of that individual's cuteness criteria is not that important. The actual reproductive advantage is in caring for one's young, thus raising the probability of perpetuating one's genes further. Thus, even a not-very-well calibrated “cuteness” factor might not be very important (in the sense of not causing much selective pressure) as long as something else causes the individual to actually care for zer young. In this case I (weakly) conjecture that the “something else” is a mechanism that “focuses” the “cuteness evaluation” on one's young. As an analogy, consider a myopic species. Selective pressure might be expected to cause it to develop better vision, to help it avoid predators and find food. However, if the same species happens to have, e.g., good (not dog-like, only good enough) smell — which brings it close enough to food for its myopic vision to work, and keeps it far enough from predators to not need eyes for defense, the selective pressure can be very diminished. Consider vision: it is an extremely old feature, so it had ample time to evolve. In fact, I'm told it evolved separately several times on Earth. All current vertebrates come from a common ancestor, which as far as I can determine had eyes. However, their vision acuity varies greatly, even in species that share a habitat. Better vision is always an advantage wherever there is light, but it's obvious from the world around us that the selective pressure exerted by that advantage is often not enough to cause evolution (sometimes, the reverse happens). ---------------------------------------- Hmm, I just had another thought, reading your comment about “[a] deep structure” blocking selection: It's not blocking as much as making irrelevant. It may be that we're just wrong. It's possible that the “cuteness” factor was useful, as we think, for
What komponisto said. Also, we should expect to find an extremely adorable common ancestor. This would also explain the tendency to associate fuzziness with cuteness.
I don't see how this follows at all. Either cuteness and baby look manage to converge over the lifetime of a reasonably long-lived species or they do not. If they do we should expect our own babies or at least those of the most recent long-lived ancestor species to look cuter than the cuteness originator. If they don't , presumably because cuteness is difficult to fine-tune, there is no particular reason to think the cuteness originator achieved a higher conversion than more recent species. Instead the cutest species should be one with both long time to evolve to meet maximum cuteness and few evolutionary constraints that limit cuteness.
All that is right. But if indeed bunnies are cuter than babies it suggests that the ancestor you describe is a common one. It would be surprising if the ancestors of bunnies had diverged from this cuteness pattern and then returned to it (especially since we seem to think that the more dependent variable is our psychological reaction not the physical features that we call "cute". Thus the prediction.
The cuteness originator being a common ancestor of all species that value cuteness doesn't imply that it achieved particularly high cuteness. Suppose that the cuteness ideal is essentially invariant (e. g. changing our idea of cuteness to include long noses would be extremely difficult and pretty much require reinventing cuteness from scratch), and valuing cuteness has been originally selected for because the babies of the cuteness originator just happened to be cute enough for cuteness valuation to be an evolutionary advantage. Successor species to the cuteness originator have the same cuteness ideal, and many of them have even cuter babies, because greater cuteness is advantageous and they had more time to evolve it. If the cuteness ideal is hard to change there is no reason to think that it was a perfect match originally. On the other hand, if the cuteness ideal is easy to change there is no particular reason to think that we still retain the original ideal.
All of this assumes that cuteness sensing and cuteness causing features are being selected for over other traits. But part of the original comment was that they weren't- that for human's cuteness is as much a legacy as anything else.
It only assumes that they weren't much more strongly selected for originally than they are now, lack of selection is just a special case of cuteness matching being hard. You wouldn't expect there to have been a perfect match between cuteness sensing and cuteness causing features unless it had been selected for, so expecting the commom ancestor to be exceptionally cute implies sufficiently strong selection then, but not now or in between.

Don't any of you have children?? Newborn babies are one thing, but there's a cuteness of seeing small, perfect little versions of yourself or your mate... I don't think a bunny could really compete.

No, other people's babies aren't that cute, but mine sure as hell are.

And in any case, I don't really see how this relates to... whatever it is you are saying about ev-psych (or the deeper mystery of cuteness). Why would you expect evolution to make us only find human babies cute? Evolution only has to work hard enough to keep us from abandoning our babies, and to hell with the (bunny-related) side-effects. Why would evolution care how cute you think bunnies are, as long as it's not so much that you start eating your babies and raising rabbits?

That thought occurred to me too. Evolutionarily, if our sexual instincts are very strong and well aimed, the cuteness instinct arguably doesn't need to be so precise.
Yes, but evolution is stupid, so our sexual instincts are not very well-aimed. Rather, like much else of cognition, they are a bunch of hacks thrown together, which then require arbitrary patches like a cuteness response to solve problems like parental care. (Compare: if our decisionmaking were perfect, we should have accurate agency detection rather than hyperactive agency detection; if we could control our nonverbals well enough, we should have accurate rather than inflated estimates of our own attractiveness.) Another consideration is parent-offspring conflict, which predicts that babies try to extract more care out of their parents than is optimal for the parents, perhaps enough of a difference to account for your surprise.
But that wouldn't work as well. I, as a human, would like to be that way; it would still reduce my genetic fitness.
In terms of genetic interests this should reduce to male-female conflict, like birth weight, yes?
Not sure. They seem very much related, but the rationale for parent-offspring conflict applies equally well to parents of either sex (any unit of parental investment gives the child twice the benefit that it gives the parent because the child has only 50% of the parent's genes). See the original POC paper here, and a paper on genomic imprinting (also by Trivers) here.
There is not necessarily a contradiction between asserting that an instinct is "well aimed" and observing that it is a "bunch of hacks thrown together." Because phrases like "well aimed" are really a kind of shorthand for talking about effects not intent. Thus, nobody would claim that a "selfish gene" really has feelings of selfishness. Sure, and if the combination of instincts work reasonably well together, it's not necessarily a problem that the cuteness reaction reacts stronger to bunny rabbits.

I wanted to say this for a long time: human babies aren't cute. Certainly not newborns. If I didn't know better, and saw a newborn, I would perform an exorcism. They look like creatures from the Uncanny Valley.

Edit: Seventeen points? Maybe I should make this a top-level post. Opinions?

First I lose about that many from a very thoughtful post because of my unusual sense of humor. Then I gain them back on... this? People, start making sense.


1 year ago, I would have completely agreed.

Then we had a baby, and now I see cuteness in babies all over the place. None as cute as my baby, though.

At the risk of doing another evo-psych just so story: Before you have reproduced putting any effort into helping babies diverts resources you could use for your own gains. Whereas after you've reproduced you need to keep your babies alive to pass on your genes. The increased affection for other peoples babies could be a side effect, or it might be beneficial in group environments where child care is shared.
I note that cuteoverload.com has no babies on it, as far as I can tell. Cats, dogs, and little balls of feathery fuzz, but no babies.
Upvoted because of the edit. But don't make this a top-level post, please.
I think this reaction is strongly affected by your current hormone levels (whether you're male or female). Your reactions to baby-cuteness changes depending on genetics, age, menstrual cycle and other hormonal reasons... long-term or short-term.

If anyone is curious about my stance on this now that I have reproduced:

  • My baby is cuter than most babies. Some people who are not related to him have agreed with me on this but there is probably still bias in the sample. He does have traits I have always considered advantageous in babies generally or desirable in mine specifically though.

  • He is very difficult to photograph well. He gets distracted by the camera and moves at inopportune times. Wildlife photographers probably have solutions to similar wildlife-related issues and maybe pro baby photographers do too. I don't know how this affects image quality ratios in Google results.

  • My baby is much more appealing as a process than a snapshot. He is soft and squishy and warm in addition to being nice to stare at, and has learned to smile and laugh in response to things we do, and he is endearingly incompetent at many tasks he attempts. Some animals can do that sort of thing too though.

I still think it's suspect that the cuteness response fires strongly in response to bunnies etc., but I may have stacked the deck more than I would have if I had known more at the time.

Advice: get a camera that focuses quickly (most point-and-shoots and all smartphones don't), can shoot in bursts, and has or can take bright lenses.
My dad has a shoot-in-bursts feature on his phone which seems neat but I barely use my phone enough to justify having it, let alone replacing it. We've gotten some irregular good photographs of him (one person who sometimes comes over to help is particularly good at this).
Taking pictures of kids is a technically demanding thing. If you want good images consistently, you'll have to buy an actual photo camera :-/
I would first have to get steadier hands.
No, you wouldn't. Cameras do anti-shake (image stabilization) very very well these days. With certain cameras people get sharp images from multi-second (!) hand-held exposures. For kids, the subject movement will be the determining factor, your hands can shake all they want.
Making explicit something implicit in Lumifer's comment: children move a lot and image stabilization won't do anything about that[1], so with an image-stabilized camera (and perhaps even without) the only way to avoid motion blur is to reduce the exposure time. This in turn requires you to get more photons to the sensor per unit time, which requires a physically larger camera. Smartphone cameras are incredibly impressive these days given the constraints they work under, but a good "real" camera can take in a whole lot more light than the camera in any phone, which will mean shorter exposures and hence sharper kid pictures. [1] Though, hmm, I wonder whether it would be possible to make a camera that identifies subjects and how they're moving -- this is already done for autofocus -- and then uses the image stabilization machinery to keep the subject as motionless as possible in the image. That would be startling but isn't obviously impossible. (If the subject moves too much, obviously it's hopeless.) [EDITED to add: For the avoidance of doubt, I am 100% confident that Lumifer already knows all that, with the possible exception of the idea in the footnote, and 95% confident that you understood it all from what he said; this is for the sake of that last 5%.] [EDITED again to add:] Pretty sure the idea in the footnote isn't really workable. Autofocus tracks subject movement between photos. This would require watching within a single image capture, which implies either taking lots of short-exposure shots instead of a single longer one (implying more readout noise) or else having a separate sensor used only for this (but unless a lot of the light is getting diverted to that separate sensor it's going to be seeing super-noisy images which can't be good for its ability to track subjects). Also, this seems quite expensive computationally.
Yes, but there is one other way besides getting a bigger sensor -- get brigher lenses. One f-stop difference gives you twice as many photons. As to your idea, it might be more workable than you think :-) You are assuming an SLR and that's not the only choice nowadays. Mirrorless cameras have their sensor open all the time and read it continuously (plus some have specific autofocus sensels embedded into the main sensor). Besides, continuous AF already tries to predict the subject movement. It's not a big stretch to to apply it to IS as well. There is the issue of what to track, but tracking the eyes seems like a reasonable default and eye identification already exists in consumer cameras (it's used to maintain the focus on the eyes). The big issue is that IS is very limited in the magnitude of movement it can compensate for and for large shifts you will need to move the whole camera (using something like an autopanning tripod head that FOOMed). All in all, some kind of "subject movement compensation assist" seems technically possible. But at consumer level, probably not before Alicorn's kid grows up.
Oh yes, very much so. But the brighter lenses, again, require non-smartphone cameras. (Not necessarily SLRs, of course.) I wasn't, I promise. Open all the time, yes. Continuously, not so much so far as I know. The processing is separate from the sensor, and there's a readout process that amounts to capturing an image from light falling on the sensor during a given period.[1] Hmm, if readout and reset are separate (which I think they generally are) then I suppose you can capture shorter "subframes" without disturbing the capture of a longer frame within which they occur. That was an error on my part, but it wasn't the result of assuming an SLR camera. I still worry that getting the information needed would require very short (and therefore noisy) subframes, and that that would interfere with accurate tracking. But I haven't done the obvious experiments to see what the images would be likely to look like. I'm not sure why you're telling me this, since I already said exactly the same thing in the comment you were replying to, and the whole point of my proposal was to make use of the subject-motion-tracking already implemented for AF to enable the IS mechanism to compensate for subject motion. Yes, though of course that fails if the subject's eyes happen not to be in shot, or if the subject is something without eyes, or if they're too small in the image to track well (if this turns out to be feasible, bird photographers will love it -- though possibly birds move too fast). AF can do pretty well at tracking subjects even if they don't have visible eyes; I assume this system would use essentially the same techniques. (Track whatever high-contrast features happen to be visible in the right places, I guess.) Yes (that was my point about it being hopeless if the subject moves too much). But we're talking here (or at least I am) about movement within a single image-capture, and the point is simply to extend the range of acceptable exposure times. If a sharp image require
Cameras with an electronic viewfinder have to update it with a reasonable refresh rate, if the AF is set to continuous it's updated in real time as long you half-press the shutter button, exposure/histogram is also updated in real time. The issue is basically how high a frequency can it do. The key word is "predict". If you are confident of your prediction, you can do an exposure without measuring anything while it's in process. Well, there clearly would be a lot of trade-offs involved. An obvious one is that if you e.g. pan the sensor to keep the eyes sharp, all the motionless elements in the image would get smudged. That might work fine for a particular picture, but it is a specific look. They do now. The latest Olympus -- EM-1 Mark2 -- claims to do 5.5 stops just with body IS and if you add lens IS that it can talk to (not sure there are more lens that can do that besides the 12-100mm) it goes up to 6.5 stops.
Wow, okay, I guess that might be worth it. Spouse has a "nice camera" but I don't know if it does this.
also a little bit of photo taking posture helps a lot.

Maybe the bunny has evolutionarily converged on the mammal shared cuteness pattern, but the baby has been forced to diverge by other pressures? Human babies are born very underdeveloped relative to other species. I've read speculation that this is due to the upright walking, hip shape, head size, brain size compromise, and that seems sensible to me. Cuteness optimization may have been shoved aside as lower priority.

I think people often observe that several month old babies are cuter than newborns, then again I think the same thing is true of many animals, for example, baby chicks.
Excellent observation. I was thinking the same thing.

A cognitive module for cuteness only needs to make us find babies a nice thing and enhance the probability of parental care. It simply doesn’t matter if, besides doing that, the same cognitive module make us find bunnies or orthorhombic sulfur crystals at low temperature cute, so long this doesn’t have any deleterious effects. Probably a cognitive module that can find cute only human babies and not bunnies is more evolutionary improbable and developmental costly having the same relevant behavioral results of a more cheap and universal cognitive module for cuteness. Evolution only needs to shape cognition in order to generate, more or less, the right type of behavior. It DOESN’T have to, and in most cases it doesn’t, shape cognition nicely, in a way we would look at it and say “nice work”.

Yes, and I would say finding bunnies cuter than human babies isn't a strong argument against Dennett's hypothesis. Supernormal Stimuli are quite common in humans and non-humans. I think this argument could be analogously phrased: "The reason why exercise makes us feel good can't be to get us to exercise more, because cocaine feels even better than exercise." Seems wrong when we put it that way.
Upvoted for a better understanding of ev psych. That's kind of the whole point of ev psych, at least for me: our minds are kluges, and side effects hardly factor in if they have little survival disadvantage.
Bunnies exist in the ancestral environment. Finding them cute makes us less likely to hunt and eat them, and more likely to waste resources capturing and feeding them. It's possible we don't actually find them cute when we're used to hunting them, though.
Or bunnies happen to take advantage of the evolutionarily useful baby-cute sense, and it was never maladaptive enough that evolutionary processes narrowed baby-cute sense. Sort of like how humans seem to have an automatic mental process to recognize faces even when there are no faces.
Bunnies prevalence on EEA is uncertain, at best. There are few species so widely hunted as the bunny, but it might be the case that the cute ones were slightest less hunted and reproduced more. Or, we might have selected then for neoteny, as we do whenever we have a chance (dogs, cats, cows, donkey), it makes them more docile and easy to slaughter and enslave. We finding them cute would be then both a side effect of (1) evolutionary pressures for not wasting energy in building an excessively fine tuned cuteness-taste and (2) the fact the most easy way to select for easiness-to-slaughter-and-enslave is to select for baby-like faces. Evolution is a nasty, lazy, immoral mistress."Had Mother Nature been a real parent, she would have been in jail for child abuse and murder."

It seems very oversimplified to say, "We think babies are cute because we have to." "Cuteness" casts a pretty wide net when you start thinking of all the things we say are "cute." A sample list of things I've heard described as cute:

  • Babies
  • Bunnies
  • Targets of sexual attraction
  • Small consumer goods, such as tiny containers of shampoo, small forks, etc.
  • Some old men
  • Targets of sarcastic comments ("That's real cute, but .. ")

It seems like we reserve the word for "things that are vulnerable/harmless/ineffective and don't realize it, which then triggers an urge to keep the thing's inaccurate self-perceptions about its own effectiveness intact."

This is confusing the map with the territory. We use the word "cute" for all those things, but we don't feel the same way about them all, and we don't mean the same thing by that word in most of those cases.
I was asked to clarify and expand this comment, so: The original post was about a particular feeling that humans often have in certain situations, a feeling that is often triggered by looking at young animals. This feeling is something that exists in the real world (the territory). We use the word "cute" (among others) to describe something triggering this experience. This is part of our map of the world. However, no word unambiguously refers to just one thing in the real world. That's just not how language works. As it happens, the word "cute" is commonly used to refer to lots of other things as well. Targets of sexual attraction may be said to be "cute", but in a different way than bunnies or kitties, though these may be related. Using the word "cute" sarcastically is a very different use of the word with a completely different meaning. My original point was that if something is described as "cute", that may be a similarity on the map but not the territory. I may use the same word for a sexually attractive human, a kitten, a small fork, an old man, and a sarcastic comment (map similarity). But for each one, I may mean something completely different, and I may have a completely different response with a separate type of explanation (territory difference).
tl;dr: Cuteness is the word that we use when we want something to experience a feeling of safety or otherwise be more confident than we think they would feel without special effort to make them feel that way. Thanks for expanding. I want to throw out a warning that we're treading dangerously close to the foul line, but I think we're still in-bounds. I understand the general point that words can have different meanings, and I'm open to the possibility that I'm falling victim to the typical mind fallacy. I don't have any alternate meanings suggested yet, so I'm going to try to preemptively defend my definition below. I want to test this hypothesis with a visualization experiment. I don't expect it will take longer than about 2 minutes to do all of the visualizations. This is the scene I want you to imagine: the person, animal, or object is standing or sitting, whichever can be expected of it. If it's a person, he or she has a blank, unsmiling, neutral, unaggressive facial expression. If it's an animal, its face is similarly at rest. It's facing either Data or Spock (take your pick). Imagine Data or Spock saying the sentence out loud to the person, animal, or object. * 52" plasma television set - It's flipping through many channels, previewing each one for about a second; someone is channel-surfing. "You will be replaced by better, cheaper technology in less than a year." * Baby - "You would test very low on an IQ test. You will continue to be a net resource drain for several years." * Sexiest person alive - Doesn't matter who or what gender - this person is desired greatly, and desired primarily for their ability to satisfy you, personally, sexually. Take a minute and picture this person facing Data or Spock. "Your opinion isn't respected in virtually any matter; people agree with it out of hope they'll be able to sleep with you." * Bunny - "In a year's time, you will be harvested and your muscles will be cooked in a soup." * Cute boy or girl - Crucially,
Interesting. My empathy seems to be working in a weird way. * TV set: it doesn't sound mean at all -- it's an inanimate fucking object. (I'm assuming the old TV set will be sold or given away, rather than disposed of or destroyed, otherwise it would sound somewhat mean -- towards the hypothetical person who could otherwise use the TV set, not towards the TV set itself. * Baby: not mean at all if the baby is too young to understand, very mean otherwise. By this point, I was thinking that “can they understand?” must be it. * Sexy person: somewhat mean. So far, so good; but... * Bunny: okay, this does sound kind-of mean, and the bunny most definitely doesn't understand English, so my heuristic was broken. (I'm not sure whether me feeling empathy for a bunny is a bug or a feature.) Next: * Cute girl: slightly mean. * Cute boy: not mean at all. (But the fact that in certain ways I'm probably more feminine than usual for males might have something to do with that.) * Hyena: wow, that does sound somewhat mean (more than for the bunny). WTH? Some part of me must be an Azathoth worshipper. * Shampoo bottle: not mean at all. Can't feel empathy for a bottle even if I try to force myself to. (And, as I once already mentioned, I do feel a sliver of empathy for the molecules in this picture when they're hit particularly hard. What's the difference? The fact that I've done moshing which is analogous to thermal collisions but I've never done anything remotely analogous to being a shampoo bottle about to be thrown away? * Old man: OMG, telling him that in front of his wife? 'The hell is wrong with you, Mr Spock? * Creepy old man: the “You give women the creeps” part doesn't sound mean at all, the “you won't have sex again between now and when you die” sounds extremely mean (but the fact that I'm involuntarily celibate myself probably has something to do with this).
I still don't know, but the fact that I can feel sorry for someone talking to it is definitely a bug. I don't think words should have any non-zero terminal value, they only matter insofar as they have an effect in the listener (and if Omega told me that there's an M-Disc with $literary_work somewhere in intergalactic space where no-one could read it, and offered to give me $10 and destroy the disc, I would totally accept); and (pace certain new-agey bollocks) telling a bunny “In a year's time, you will be harvested and your muscles will be cooked in a soup” won't hurt it any more than telling it anything else.
It strikes me that tabooing "cute" might be useful here. Regardless of how we use the word, going back to the OP, what is it we mean when we talk about our reaction to say, a picture of a bunny or a kitty or a baby? For me, it's an "awww" response, coupled with a smile and an urge to hold or pet or protect the animal. I don't feel that way about a miniature object, exactly, or an old man, or a sexually attractive person. At best it's a very muted version of the feeling.
Response: I have weak negative responses in all cases, inanimate objects included. The negative responses are stronger only in case of both old men. Ordering from the weakest to the strongest may be: plasma TV, sexiest person, shampoo, baby, hyena, bunny, creepy man, 90 years man. Few disclaimers: a) I am not a native English speaker, so my understanding of "cute" is probably non-standard. b) I have excluded cute boy/girl from classification, since I have no idea what I may imagine. (Maybe related to a.) c) TV set would score much higher if it were an old black and white model from 1960s. d) I feel a difference in severity of revealed incovenient truths. "You will be cooked" is certainly more harsh than "you will be a resource drain". e) It is difficult to answer, since my initial feelings rapidly change as I think about the situations longer. f) I don't see how relevant is this test to the OP.
My responses: negative emotional response for all the humans, except the baby. Especially negative responses for both the old men. Neutral for the TV, baby, bunny, hyena, and shampoo. Did people seriously feel defensive or protective of inanimate objects?

I actually included that because of exactly that response from various girls about objects like hotel shampoo bottles, Japanese candies, a very small salt-shaker, a tiny spoon, etc. It usually goes something like, "Look at that salt shaker; it's so cute." And then I look at the salt shaker and say, "You're worthless because you're too small to be useful." And the girl will go, "Don't say that!" and then immediately grabs the salt shaker.

One time I drew pictures on a piece of scratchpaper in such a way that when a Japanese candy was placed in the middle of it, it looked like I had the candy strung up by chains and was being tortured via electric shock. My co-worker snatched the candy and still hasn't eaten it; it's still in her desk.

This could have more to do with a reaction to you than to the object. There's no real motivation to love and protect a cute tiny salt shaker, but surely there's also no call to be or simulate being cruel to it. I mean, it can't hear you. If you address it and say nasty things to it, what are the possible motivations for that? Mightn't it make sense on some psychological level to object and work to prevent the outlet of nastiness due to its perceived meaning about and effects on you rather than the saltshaker?
My point is that it's perceived as nasty and cruel at all, rather than bizarre or slightly rude or honest. Imagine it was an excessively large salt shaker - say, several feet tall. And faced it and said, "You're worthless because you're too large to be useful." People would give me a quizzical look, like, what's wrong with this guy? But the instinct wouldn't be to protect the large salt shaker.
I think this may have to do with liking the object at all, rather than thinking it's cute in particular. If you insulted a painting that I liked (addressing it directly) which I thought was pretty but not cute - "you, painting, have no practical value whatsoever and are too overpriced to justify the space you'd take up on a wall!" - or spoke to a bowl of soup in a restaurant, which I thought was tasty but not cute - "you are too cold, and have too high a potato-to-clam ratio!" - I think that might bother me in the same way it would if you told a cute saltshaker that it was too small to be useful. Expressing harsh opinions of a liked object is seen as hostile.
I'll have to take your word on how it would bother you, but I think a crucial difference is that in the instance of the cute salt shaker, the instinct is to protect - notice that the word used, "cruel," is dependent upon how it's received by the anthropomorphized salt shaker. If I tell the soup, "You're too cold and have too high a potato-to-clam ratio!" - is it seen as cruel or mean? It seems more like it's seen as, like you said, hostile - a statement more about my feelings in intent than the "feelings" of the salt shaker in consequence. I also understand that I may be putting too much emphasis on your particular words, inferring precision where none was intended, so if that's the case, let me know. But I think in the case of the cute object, I would be seen as a "bully," whereas in the case of the soup or the painting, I'd be seen as generally unpleasant and critical. To the extent that there's a victim with the un-cute objects, it's the person who values them - I have insulted their taste. This is as opposed to the cute object, where the victim is the object itself.
I think you're on to something - I am more likely to anthropomorphize a cute thing on a relevant level, and it would be my taste rather than the object's imaginary feelings that I hypothesized would come into play if you insulted the painting or soup.
That fails to explain them protecting the shaker (or the candy.)
Why are you mean to candies :( now I feel sorry too for the poor candies. You anthropomorphism their pain and it leaks into us and that makes us sad for their felt pain through empathy. I think anyway, not like I'm strong evidence.
What the hell--
Interesting. My empathy seems to be working in a weird way. (Will elaborate on this later.)
Report: No discernible response for anything except the creepy old man (minor positive emotional response). Note that I don't really have a conception of "cute" or "sexy," so disregard my responses for cute boy, cute girl, and sexiest person.
Let me break that down Targets of sexual attraction: I think that most people (Moderate confidence) see different targets of sexual attraction with wildly varying levels of cuteness, and I know that for myself, cuteness is inversely correlated with how directly, physically sexual my attraction is. Furthermore, after I inadvertently modified myself to be attracted to power, cuteness became a bit of horns rather than a halo. Targets of sarcastic comments: I think that is clear and simple insulting for childishness. Inanimate objects: I tend to feel protective of quaint equipment, even if it is unlikely to be a valuable historical artifact in the future, but it doesn't seem related to the cuteness response to those objects. I think that the most important distinction in your list is between cute adult humans and all the others except for sarcasm, which doesn't belong with the rest of them.


In fact, bunnies are edible.

Babies are edible too. Cannibalistic infanticide is a fairly common phenomenon throughout the animal world. It is widely practiced by chimpanzees, some of the closest evolutionary relatives of humans. (It's mostly done by male chimpanzees, but sometimes also females; see the linked paper for more details and references.)

Unless some group-selection mechanism is in operation (and such explanations are always controversial), there is no straightforward reason why one should care about unrelated babies. Killing them may well be adaptive behavior. Infanticide is thus unsurprisingly a widespread phenomenon) in nature -- and once you kill a baby, you might as well eat it too; hence cannibalistic infanticide. Even when it comes to one's own kids and relatives, there are situations where killing them may be cost-effective in selfish gene terms, and parental and kin infanticide is also far from nonexistent among animals. All these behaviors are a regular subject of study in evolutionary biology, including evolutionary psychology.

Therefore, noting that babies can look less cute than other things whose only relevant characteristics are nutritional is ... (read more)

Actually, I find the baby about 75 000 cuter. This might have something to do with the fact that I'm a) a girl, and b) right at the age when, biologically speaking, I should be having kids. I see babies in the street and get warm fuzzy feelings. My (female) friends and I at work talk about how much we want to take home every baby in the Parent & Tot swimming classes. We show each other pictures of friends' babies and go completely gaga. Just wanted to point out that this may be something that varies with sex. (Although not for everyone, of course.)

I'm a girl too, and I'm 22 (was 21 when I wrote the article) - I'm not sure if you categorize that as the biological age where I should be having babies, but it's not just a sex thing, although that might factor in weakly somehow.
Trying to determine what effect if any sex has is difficult, because the reaction of males / females to young children is highly influenced by exposure. Anecdotally, when families I know have had children, any girls who have some relation to the family are often encouraged to play with them / babysit them, or are given tutorials on things like changing diapers. I can only think of one guy who had the same treatment, although males may also just try to hide that they are good at dealing with babies. I have worked in a nursery with children around age 5 and up, and this is when it actually becomes possible for me to find them cute, I don't think its a coincidence. Instead of getting taught from an early age, the general trend seems to be that men are just expected to pick it up on the spot when they get married. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, and may account for the large number of guys who worry about commitment in the first place. When I hold a baby, I feel the same as i did when I first started playing an expensive instrument, or installed an OS on my computer, paranoid because I was worried I was going to break something. If it wasn't for that, then the odds of me finding babies cute would go up considerably.
I'm trans (assigned male at birth, female now) and can say that there's not the same kind of pressure on young men to react well to babies and young children and take an interest in them. I happen to have a fairly strong caretaker/teacher/playful interaction drive where kids are concerned; it was often seen as a bit weird, although once people saw me establishing a rapport with a child, they'd usually re-sort me into the "exception" box.
0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
Of course it's not JUST a sex thing. That would make no sense, either in evolutionary terms or in terms of actual evidence (there are a lot of very loving fathers in the world). But I suspect that when we're talking about random babies on the street, the tendency to go gaga over them is more than weakly a sex thing. I've met maybe 2 guys who do that, but maybe 25% of girls (this is a guesstimation). It probably varies more between individuals than between the genders, though. (Note: my mother tells me she also had a strong gaga-over-babies reflex when she was in her teens.) Have you EVER had a warm fuzzy feeling looking at babies? Also, do you spend a lot of time with children? Do you have warm fuzzy feelings for friends' and relatives' babies? I see the same children every week when teaching them swimming lessons, and it's probably the "making friends" part that makes me want to take them home at the end of the day.
A friend of mine has a three-year-old who is so cute that she looks like she walked out of an illustrated fairy tale. I met this three-year-old when she was one, and while she wasn't precisely awful to look at then, she was definitely less cute than she is now and less cute than the bunny. Another friend of mine has a new baby, and while this baby is unprecedented for me in the sense that I can identify her as looking like her parents, she is not as cute as the bunny. Note that I do like holding and interacting with babies. They are small and warm and have itty-bitty fingers and toes to play with and soft hair to pet. But visually, bunnies win.
0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
I guess I lump all of those in with "general tendency towards cuteness" since when I think "baby" I think of the whole experience: holding, feeding, changing, bouncing up and down, the first time they hold up their head, the first time you smile and they smile back... Visually, yeah, some bunnies can be cuter than some babies. If you had chosen different images, I might have agreed that the bunny was cuter. Agreed that in some ways, three-year-olds are cuter than one-year-olds. All babies look about the same (except to their parents) and although they're cute, from what I've their cuteness doesn't vary as much. Whereas some three-year-olds are walk-out-of-a-fairy-tale cute and some, well, aren't. (Again, except to their parents.) I'm going to stop commenting about babies now because the I-want-a-baby-now thing is a preoccupation of mine that I doubt many people on this site share. (Not to mention inconvenient in our current society that strongly penalizes teen mothers.)
If the teen mother comment implies that you yourself are a teenager, I'd be interested in your source for saying you're 'right at the age when, biologically speaking, I should be having kids'. I can't find stats on this because babies in general are one of the areas where internet searches create too much noise for easy research, but a friend who studied some social demography stuff once told me that fertility doesn't peak until the 20s. On the main topic, there's a big danger of generalising from one example: whether you find babies cute is likely to relate to a whole host of your personal experiences and feelings about babies as well as the instinctive cuteness response. But beyond that, I don't think there would be strong selective pressure against a cuteness response that also encompassed baby animals. Farmers don't seem to find the cuteness of lambs to be a barrier to killing them, after all. If I was making up just-so stories, I'd guess that cuteness serves to get attention, increase patience and prevent boredom during childcare, rather than to make us want to look after them. You could do some interesting studies on this, though. I wouldn't be surprised if some subconscious effects of cuteness responses (whether direct physical correlates or side effects on future actions etc.) would link more to bunnies, while people felt they should claim that babies are cuter.
3Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
I am 19, and apparently I had a cached belief that 16 is the ideal age for childbirth. (I've tried to track down the source, and I think it's from a novel I read a really, really long time ago, where a character was 'legally too young, but biologically the ideal age for childbirth'.) A quick Google search suggested 25-35 years of age as the period of peak fertility. Which I did not know. And which makes me feel better about having to delay having kids until then. No doubt. But in general, I think a LOT of people (especially females) will have had the personal experiences that lead them to think babies are cute. And I wouldn't be surprised if mothers whose 'cuteness' instinctive response is lower would have more trouble raising children, no matter how good their intentions. (I have a very sad story about this, actually, but I'm saving it for a top-level post.) This reminds me of the area of qualitative research (in nursing, but you can do it anywhere I assume.) You go out and interview a whole bunch of people (mothers with babies in this case) and ask them a lot of questions about the emotions they feel surrounding their child and how their warm fuzzy feelings affect the way they care for your child. Then you compile the results, pick out common trends, and you have some empirical evidence to justify your just-so stories. (Assuming that baby-cuteness serves the same purpose now as it did during our evolution, which I think is safe.) As an aside, I really don't have much of a cuteness response to animals. I occasionally feel guilty eating meat because of a top-down moral belief that they have some form of consciousness and ability to feel pain, but on a purely emotional level I doubt I would have any trouble killing and eating a rabbit.
If you're not running on instincts then you might want to be particularly careful with your beliefs in this area... Peak fertility is different that the optimal age for a first child. Fertility is much easier to measure (based simply on the probability of getting pregnant given an standard opportunity to do so) whereas the best age to have your first child is a ridiculously complicated calculation having to do with your values and goals plus: the current and future state of medicine, the current and future state of the economy, your current and future pool of partnering opportunities, and probably other stuff as well. Azathoth (who doesn't know about fertility medicine or transhumanism or the singularity yet, and was informed of the pill one or two "clock cycles" ago) probably thinks it is a good idea to be very fertile near the end of one's period of fertility because it's your last chance to have your last kid, even if the probability of birth defects is substantially higher. In the modern democratic/industrialized environments, women don't have replacement levels of children. This might be "good" if we're all looking around and correctly determining that the population should be lower and 0,1, or 2 "really well raised" kids are better than 8 "poorly raised" kids. Alternatively, this might be "bad" if our parenting instincts are just going crazy in this environment. Like it could be that if/when we're well informed 70 year olds who resist cognitive dissonance we might look back on current reproductive decisions with justifiable regret. In the (justifiably controversial) book The Bell Curve, the authors claim that before the advent of SATs, merit-based scholarships, and a universal college expectation for smart people, society was different in many ways, including that people in college were more likely to have rich parents but otherwise had the same intelligence as everyone else, and also that higher IQ predicted early marriage, early parenthood, less divorce,
One more factor-- I think people are less likely to have children (or many children) if they trust that larger social structures (private and/or public pensions and provisions for care) will support them when they get old. I believe that WEIRD (and we probably drop the "white" because the meme definitely spreads to other races) cultures are unsustainable at present tech because the birth rate is too low.
The 'younger the better' belief is quite common. I assume that it's because most people worrying about age and childrens are at the older end and thinking they should be younger, and so they project that backwards. Also it fits with some popular myths of 'everyone used to have kids at 14'. On the generalising from one example, I was actually addressing Alicorn's original point. That babies are cute is pretty generally accepted, but I wouldn't be able to guess how many people prefer bunnies. Surveys sound interesting, but there are also areas where people misreport, either because they think there's a 'right response' or because they simply mistake their own views. I'm squeamish about killing animals, and mammals more than lizards etc., but I don't think cute baby mammals would be harder to kill.
2Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
I have been attempting a Google search to find out the average age of first-time mothers in the year 1500. I'm guessing it would tend to be younger in rural regions, but my search so far as turned up nothing but noise. This is one of the skepticisms I had when we first learned about qualitative research in my nursing class. But I guess the point is less to be objective and more just to gather descriptive data. Later on you can choose your variables and find reliable ways to measure them, and your research becomes quantitative.
You can find some relevant data about pre-Industrial and Industrial England in chapter 12 of Clark's Farewell to Alms. (Interestingly, age of marriage - which implies first pregnancy since illegitimacy was so rare - dropped around 2-3 years for women between the 1600s and 1800s.)
Same demographer friend (more accurately, ex-girlfriend who was studying social and economic history at the time) told me that illegitimacy varied a lot by region in the early modern period. If I recall correctly, there were Northern rural communities where the first child was typically born before marriage. Or maybe so soon after that the parents must have known the women would bear a child. This was because marriage was seen as marking when you set up house, rather than the start of sex, and because you wouldn't fix a relationship until fertility/combatibility was clear. People may have become engaged and pledged to each other first, mind.

This study suggests looking at kitten pictures makes you more careful, improving performance in fine-motor dexterity tasks such as mock surgery.

I wonder if this could lower the error rate of computer programmers, and whether I should buy Eliezer a kitten.

You'd have to give Eliezer a sequence of kittens unless you're hoping that the cuteness of the kitten will have an imprinting effect which will affect Eliezer's reaction to the eventual cat.
It would probably be more efficient (and less cruel to the kittens who would eventually lose importance) to just have Eliezer look at a filtered-for-cuteness lolcats picture stream each morning.
Has this been tested and/or implemented? I'd totally volunteer to do the filtering. Some unknown odds of possibly improving Eliezer's efficiency by up to 2% up to a third of the time still sounds like a hell of a lot more expected utility than other stuff I happen to be doing.
Hah, thanks. That made my day better.

We find bunnies in general cute, but not humans in general -- so it makes sense that a baby bunny would be cuter than a baby human. It combines babyness and bunnyness, as compared to a human baby who only has babyness. We care about the human baby more than the bunny baby because we value humanness quite apart from cuteness.

This just rephrases the question as "why are bunnies cute?"
Why the downvotes? Dennett's claim is that the cute-finding instinct is helpful because it means we protect and care for babies. So okay, Sticky give a reason why we find baby bunnies extra cute... they combine two cute-conferring properties babyness and bunnyness. Fine, but that just pushes Alicorn's question back a step: How is it that this instinct that evolved so we would protect babies applies to rabbits? In other words... why are (adult) bunnies cute?
Here's a thought: A human who found other humans super-cute would be extremely vulnerable to cuckoldry (broadly defined). So that there might have been some selection pressure in the opposite direction. Put another way, one can expect familiarity to breed a certain amount of contempt.
A human who locates some bunnies, considers them cute, and domesticates them, will ultimately get more bunny-meat with less effort than one who simply kills and eats bunnies on sight.
Then why aren't cows, sheep, horses, or even chickens nearly as cute as kittens and bunnies?
Baby sheep, horses, and chickens are very cute... cows not so much.
They're cute, but I think kittens would win against calves and chicks in a cuteness contest. Or leopard cubs, if you think size is a factor. My point was that cuteness is not well correlated with domesticability or with tastiness. It's easy to propose explanation for this, harder to test them. Maybe it's because we regard sheep and chickens as food animals while kittens are companions and friends? Regardless, your original point stands - human babies aren't as cute as many animal ones.
It still seems like the dominant feature for cuteness is being a baby. An evolutionary explanation that did not explain that would be very strange.
What if it's a flag for imprintability? A cute, unattended creature is a potential investment, with the hardest part (childbirth) already taken care of. Large eyes, brains, and paws relative to the rest of the body is a physiological consequence of incomplete development, and most mammals have some potential use or other to whoever they recognize as 'parent.'
What possible use can a foster-child ever be to a non-human parent? As for human adoptive parents, animal cuteness does not seem strongly correlated with usefulness. Apart from the few species we domesticate anyway, how are "most mammals" of any use to us?
http://www.ananova.com/news/story/sm_2242217.html If this happened in the wild, that momma pig would eventually have adult tigers ready to fight alongside her legitimate offspring, which could conceivably help to defend them from predators. At the same time, adopted tigers won't compete with the other piglets for root vegetables as a food supply. Combined-arms tactics, almost. "Most mammals" are made of meat; if all else fails, they're edible. "The few species we domesticate anyway" were low-hanging fruit in terms of suitability for domestication, and also happen to be cuter than many non-domesticated species, which I doubt is a coincidence.
Yes, but there's a theory here that you have the cause and effect backward: they're cute because they're more babyish, and they're more babyish because that's what they're bred for. Apparently, dogs are supposed to look and act like wolf puppies or something. So says Temple Grandin, anyway. Wikipedia agreed when last I looked.
A tiger couldn't grow on pig milk alone - the zoo in that story are giving the cubs meat supplements. Later, the young tigers will need to be taught to hunt to get enough meat. And pigs wouldn't like the games adolescent tigers play. Later on, the tigers could eat other pigs who might have mated with their adopted siblings; or the tigers' own future mates might eat them. There's no way this wouldn't end in tears. Outside of the few ruminant species who can eat grass, almost all mammals compete with humans for food. Instead of feeding a growing pet for a year, and then making one large meal out of it, you could feed a growing human child for a year. Bad evolutionary tradeoff. The correct decision is to eat that mammal now. It's not a coincidence. But that doesn't mean we necessarily benefit from it in evolutionary terms. We just enjoy doing it. Those animals that are truly useful, I believe we would have (and in some cases did) domesticated, whether or not they were cute.
Unless you've got a surplus of highly-perishable food, a surplus which will end as surely as winter follows after fall. In that case, the mammal in question acts as a convenient storage device, a bank which will often follow you around of it's own volition rather than needing to be carried. Even if there's overlap between human and potential-pet diets, that doesn't mean they're in direct competition. Dogs, for example, will happily eat the same fresh meat a human would, but can also survive on gristle and partially spoiled meat that human stomachs violently reject.
Agree. It is interesting that unless you grew up in an agricultural/non-industrialized culture, such things can only be known from reading novels about people that have (and written by people with such first-hand experience). For example, the book Independent People by Halldor Laxness gives an idea of how critical a domesticated animal could be for survival. In the story, the main character's wife died because he wouldn't keep her a cow. Relevantly, he raised the child she left (their child, in fact) because the child was cute more so than out of duty. When the child was 15 or so and less cute he forgot all about her. The book is longish but so good. He's got like 50 pages in a row about minute details about sheep.
These sentences seem extremely incongruous to me.
I predict-- in advance, even!-- that you are not a fan of Lord of the Rings.
...I liked the movies...
And I would like more information about Lothlorien's ecosystem. But the movies are epic, I admit.
You worshipper of feudal tyranny and racism!!
Yes, usually reading about sheep would be boring. But I suppose this book is so interesting because it exposes one to a world view that they wouldn't otherwise have known about, in very high relief -- and an important component of that world view was the importance of sheep.
Plausible. How often do people eat most or all of their tame animals in late autumn, and adopt new animal babies in spring, instead of maintaining bigger herds of tame animals that can reproduce to replace the ones eaten? I remember hearing about something of the kind, but can't recall the details... The question is, then: how viable is taming and raising animals for short periods of time before eating them? Spoiled meat isn't something you have a reliable supply of. You can't raise a dog just on spoiled meat and other things humans won't eat.
Martinmas (November 11) was the traditional day for slaughtering and salting old stock and swine to provide a supply of meat, however meagre, for the coming winter. Not exactly the environment we evolved for, but it's solid evidence of feasibility.
I don't doubt that slaughtering some tame animals in winter is a good strategy. But those come from self-sustaining, reproducing herds of tame animals. What I doubt is the viability of slaughtering all your animals and then taming new ones each spring, as you seemed to suggest.
It had never been my intention to suggest a slaughter of all available tame animals; only enough to cover the shortage. The strategy I spoke of is based on preservation, and living animals tend to stay fresh longer than dead ones.
Thousands of years of history of people raising pigs suggests otherwise. Dogs appear to have been domesticated at least partly because they were able to help with hunting and presumably the widespread adoption of canine companions is evidence that humans benefited from the relationship more than enough to compensate for any upkeep costs.
As I said, useful species like dogs and pigs are domesticated because of their usefulness; their cuteness is not a prime consideration. Piglets aren't champions of cuteness. Puppies are cute, but grown dogs or wolves are dangerous and must be very frightening if you're not used to domesticated ones.
I'm not really sure what you're arguing exactly. Would you agree that animals that are commonly domesticated (cows, sheep, pigs, dogs, cats, horses) have young that humans also find cute? It seems that the widespread domestication of these animals is partly because they are also useful, either as a direct food source or because they help find, hunt or protect a food source. Is your point that other animals also have young that humans find cute (baby seals spring to mind) but are less commonly domesticated and therefore usefulness rather than cuteness of young is the primary criteria that determined domestication? That may be true - hunting hawks are an example of an animal that has been partially domesticated (or at least trained) but isn't generally considered 'cute'. It is probably impossible to know the full story behind the domestication of animals but it seems at least plausible that humans first 'adopted' some animals partially because they were 'cute' and the utility was an unplanned benefit.
Yes, but not significantly more than the average young mammal is cute. The difference |P(Cute|Domesticated) - P(Cute)| is small and uninteresting. Yes, precisely. It's possible. There are also other models, where humans domesticated whole groups of animals gradually over many generations. For instance, people who followed herds of large grazing mammals around could have protected them from predators and very gradually tamed them by selection and by relaxation of predator pressure, perhaps over many generations of people as well as of cattle. In another case, it's said wild wolves or dogs may have come to live in human settlements and eaten scraps, or cats may have come in to hunt rodents in grain stores, and were only gradually domesticated. We can't know for sure, as you say. But at the very least, once humans had a general concept of domestication, they began trying to domesticate potentially useful animals, disregarding their cuteness or un-cuteness.
Calves are actually pretty cute in person, they're not as photogenic though (we had a farm at school so I've been around lots of young farm animals).
Well there is no doubt why domesticated animals are cute and this holds true for rabbits. Alicorn's claim was that this holds true for non-domesticated rabbits as well.

Perhaps the cuteness response is tied to domestication - ie, evolution wants us to take the bunny with us until it gets old enough to stop being cute, and then eat it.

Then it fails again. People get attached to pets. They tend not to eat them, even if they're edible.
Not during famines. We can afford to have pets, but if you are an often hungry member of a hunter-gatherer tribe, cuteness may be a good measure to compensate your desire to eat the bunny on the spot. Also, we don't eat all domestic animals. Dogs or horses are quite important examples.

We don't, for some memetic reason, I guess, but many cultures do. New evidence suggest that dogs were actually first domesticated for livestock purposes (but see also this).

Incidentally, returning from the South Pole, Amundsen and his team did slaughter their dogs one at a time, as they had planned to do from the beginning, and used them for feeding both themselves and the remaining dogs. Scott's expedition considered killing their trusty companions immoral (not to mention ungentlemanly), a stance that ultimately cost the lives of both the humans and their dogs.

Yep. Even in Europe (well, in Italy at least) eating horse meat is not something unheard-of.
Is there any clear evidence for a single origin of domesticated dogs? Given that dogs can be bred with wolves, I see no reason why what we have now couldn't be a mix of the results of multiple domestication events.
Taking a quick glance at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_the_domestic_dog , it seems that wolves were domesticated several times but all extant dogs are descended (at least matrilineally) from those domesticated around 15,000 years ago in China.
horse meat dog meat I was very grossed out by a little shop advertising "Carni Equine" in Mantova, but apparently the locals did not feel the same, as it was on several restaurants' menus.
Thin slices of Mettwurst, made at least partially of equine meat, are quite a popular sandwich filling in most of Central and Northern Europe. It's not uncommon for adolescent boys to tease their (usually female) horse-aficionado peers with jokes built around this fact. (Incidentally, horse meat is apparently very high quality - high-protein, low-fat. And of course, equines - gazelles and others - were an important part of our ancestors' cuisine.)
What do "low fat" and "high quality" have to do with one another?
Point conceded; I wrote hastily. It does seem, though, that horse meat has quite favorable cholesterol values and an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
Well, yes, but it is a little nitpicking, isn't it? The point is that meat isn't the reason why most of the dogs and horses are and were kept.

Our sense of cuteness may be tuned to respond optimally to young children, instead of newborns. (I'm guessing here based on the fact that humans look like young children for a much longer period of time than like newborns. My personal sense of cuteness is extremely insensitive for some reason.)

What causes the cuteness response? Why is that bunny so outrageously adorable? Why are babies, well, pretty cute? I don't know - but I'm pretty sure it's not the cheap reason, because evolution doesn't want me to nurture bunnies.

I'm not convinced that you should be "pretty sure", but I'm more interested in why you used the word "cheap". What does that mean in this context?

"Cheap" means the one you come up with if you think about the question "Why are babies cute?" instead of "Why are the things that are cute as cute as they are?"
-1Wei Dai14y
But the originator of the explanation did have the second question in mind. From Wikipedia: Unfortunately Lorenz's original article is not available on the Internet, but I'm guessing that he was aware that some people find certain animals cuter than infants, but given the superstimulus and perhaps other explanations, did not consider it fatal to his theory.
Mortality among ancestral newborns were rampant so caring for them was probably of less marginal utility than caring for young children, I think.
My "cuteness sense" responds that way. I find young children (2 - 4 years old) much cuter than newborns. I don't think I'm alone in this.
Young animals don't generally reach optimal cuteness until some time after birth. Given the slower rate at which human young mature relative to other animals your cuteness sense for humans is not necessarily inconsistent with the normal response to animals. It seems to me that the pictures used for comparison in the OP use a bunny at a relatively later stage of development than the human infant. Newborn puppies, kittens and rabbits are peculiar little blind wriggling things and are less cute than slightly older young animals. Newborn rabbits appear to be hairless.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the bunny is about 75,119 times cuter than the baby.

You're wrong. That baby is way cuter than the bunny.

For people with cutoffs for low karma comments: Poll on relative cuteness of babies and bunnies - karma balance.
problem with the poll: the karma changes have left me several hundred karma points in the red to downvote anything.
That is a problem - indicate your opinion in a comment, and we'll hand-count it.

Here is the final, most likely explanation for the cuteness paradox:

1 - Cuteness genes are positively selected by many things, but the main filter, at least in mammals, is THE MOTHER INVESTMENT. Puppies (humans, bunnies, all of them..) compete for the investment of the mother, because she is the one that feeds them. They cannot feed themselves until they are adults. Cuteness is a deceivement device and (because it costs physical resources) an honest signal for communicating the mother that the deceiver is the puppy most worth of the maternal investment. Ev... (read more)

Mammals that bear many children less cute than a species that bears few: rats vs guinea pigs. But in any case it is very strange even to suppose that cuteness would be a universal aesthetic.
Cuteness is not an universal trait, otherwise we would share this Vulture's mum's intuition. http://g1.globo.com/Noticias/Brasil/foto/0,,15345660-EX,00.jpg http://www.patuca.blogger.com.br/Cosan-005.jpg In the case of human evaluators of babies, not only our genetic proximity to the baby must be taken in consideration. Human females pupils dilate (signal of attraction) when seeing a baby. Human male pupils will vary, with the case being that childless man are more likely to get a shrinkage, while fathers mostly have dilated pupils. Sometimes it pays not to detect something, evolutionarily speaking, some levels of egoism are tolerated and forgotten to keep future altruism, for instance. Females are pro-babies in general probably because it would be too costly to find other babies neutral, or ugly. The male scenario is a bit different. Also, we see babies all the time, so we should beware of Contrast Effect bias in favor of the bunny.
What about the fact that most people here didn't find the bunny cuter than the baby? And that this is probably true in general?
I'm not sure that's been established. Doesn't this say otherwise? Not if you believe (http://thecutest.info/top.html)
Yikes. Didn't see the LW poll results. I just remember the initial comments on this discussion, where pretty much everyone was saying the baby is cuter, and getting modded up. Very, very strange.

Selection bias. Those of us (including myself) who agreed with Alicorn probably didn't feel a need to reply just to signal their agreement.

We could just as easily imagine the selection bias having worked the other way (LessWrongers are hardly a representative sample and some have motivated reasons for choosing one way or another, especially having read through the thread), but you're of course right that, in any case, this sample isn't telling us much. I thought the baby was cuter... but why bother voting in a meaningless poll like this? (No offense :P)
People that find human infants cuter than rabbit, dog, or cat infants isn't a direct contradiction of the hypothesis, as humans would be particularly likely to find human infants cute (just as dogs are particularly likely to be protective and nurturing to puppies). The point is that animals with large litters are particularly likely to have cute infants other things (like degree of genetic closeness) equal, and that large litter animals would be sufficiently cute to overcome the fact that we're not related. Of course, domestic puppies and kittens have an advantage over wild animals, as much selection was based on human popularity. Thus, the question is whether you find say Infant Elephants as cute as infant (wild) rabbits or Wolf Puppies.
The baby elephants I saw on safari recently were pretty cute:
People that find human infants cuter than rabbit, dog, or cat infants isn't a direct contradiction of the hypothesis, as humans would be particularly likely to find human infants cute (just as dogs are particularly likely to be protective and nurturing to puppies). The point is that animals with large litters are particularly likely to have cute infants other things (like degree of genetic closeness) equal, and that large litter animals would be sufficiently cute to overcome the fact that we're not related. Of course, domestic puppies and kittens have an advantage over wild animals, as much selection was based on human popularity. Thus, the question is whether you find say Infant Elephants as cute as infant (wild) rabbits or Wolf Puppies.
I find the bunny cuter than any human baby I ever seen, and I believe that the majority of people will share the same feeling, but our opinions are aneddotical and do not constitute scientific proof. What we need is to take a statistically unbiased sample of people and asking who is cuter between the two, eliminating in this way the random influences (positive or negative) on the istinctive cuteness reaction caused by cultural bias or personal experiences, because those should be distributed equally and then cancelling each other, while the genetic bias should emerge as the dominant result being shared by all the people in the sample. Maybe someone will do a study about cuteness in the future, corroborating my theory or falsifing it. But the point is that there is nothing "unscientific" about evolutionary psychology. It's a science, and it's the best model of the human psychology ever developed.
Huh? More people who bothered to vote found the bunny cuter.

To the baby picture, my response is "aw, that's cute".

When I saw that bunny picture, my entire face scrunched with joy up for a good 15 seconds, no exaggeration. My hands rose to my face and covered my cheeks in the "Home Alone" configuration, although my expression was I'm quite sure one of joy rather than fear. I had to employ a fair amount of willpower to stop myself from saying "D'awwwww" out loud.

Consider me a data point in favor of your counter-hypothesis.

The problem with popularity: I've just been searching the web hoping to find someone linking to an investigation into cuteness that delved a bit deeper than spouting 'just so' stories. What I found is that not only are the most prominent results LessWrong.com links, most of the next in line links are external responses on the topic that link here.


So what is the alternative explanation for cuteness? Cuteness is a universal response that is very similar in all human beings. People all over the world find the same things cute. Did the phenomenon of cuteness just emerge, culturally, ex nihilo, and spread to every country in which the subject has been studied?

This universal human phenomenon must be explained somehow. The only explanation is that the phenomenon of cuteness is an evolved response.

And, I can't emphasize this enough, Dennett's hypothesis might have been idle speculation, but this issue has... (read more)

I'm sure there is an evolutionary explanation for cuteness. I just don't think it's this one.
Hmmm.... Dennett's explanation sounds just like what my Ev. Psych prof described. I'll ask her about it on Thurs.
I'd love to hear what a pro has to say about bunnies and why they're cute! Please let us know :)
@Alicorn: I think there is a problem with the reasoning in your blog post. I think that, many people find bunnies cute, because they are very satiated most of the time- which is perhaps a bit unnatural and not a similar state to those during which humans evolved. Someone who is truly hungry and goes without food for a couple of days (or even remembers a time when this happened) will eat that 'cute' bunny raw if no better food source is available. In fact, many mammals eat their own offspring when they starve and humans also practice infanticide in some cases. However, during times when there is enough food it is likely that finding your baby cute is evolutionarily advantageous. Not all animal responses are fixed or rigid behavior to outside stimuli- some responses vary dramatically as a function of the internal states of the animal.

The fact that some humans who find baby animals cute often treat them like babies, refer to their pets as "my babies," and engage in baby-talk to them is consistent with the notion that considering these animals cute is merely a byproduct of human baby-perception. I think part of the reason that Alicorn's baby bunny is so cute is that it is holding up its arms, like a baby wanting to be picked up.

1) The baby is far cuter than the rabbit.

2) There's nothing wrong with a stimulus having a superstimulus.

Superstimuli are typically artificial. I don't have this problem with Dennett's explanation of the sweet tooth just because cake exists - the cake is explained. And I wouldn't be complaining about the cuteness explanation if the only thing cuter than the baby were an idealized drawing of a baby.

I wouldn't use "superstimulus" to describe a bunny being merely cuter than a baby, but I would for a cuckoo too big for the nest, yet still being fed by the host. This is the result of an optimization process, though not an artificial one.
It's in cuckoo interests to be attractive to host birds; it's not obviously serving non-domesticated animals to be cute. It hasn't historically stopped us from eating them at anywhere near the rates that would put that kind of pressure on.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
How does the same cuckoo manage to be attractive to so many host birds?
If so, then it also doesn't significantly harm humans to see animals as cute (since it doesn't make us give up a source of food). If this is so, then a much weaker justification might be accepted for the source of cuteness, perhaps as weak as "side effect of phenotypically unrelated evolution".
Can't find the citation now, but at least some of the reason that host birds feed baby cuckoos is that parent cuckoos monitor how well their offspring are doing and will destroy the nests of birds that fail to feed the cuckoo chick. So there's selective pressure to respond to the cuckoo chick's stimulus without it necessarily being a superstimulus.
There isn't strong evidence of this. ~Bird Dork.
Good to know. Wikipedia calls one particular paper "rather convincing" -- is it on crack in this instance?
I saw that hypothesis when I was looking for the picture, but it doesn't apply to the particular picture, where the cuckoo is the only chick in the nest, in fact, too big for even the mother to perch on the rim. That was way beyond the pictures I'd seen before, where the cuckoo is merely bigger than the mother. Actually, the picture doesn't make sense me: how can the mother provide enough food for this gigantic chick, much bigger than her whole brood?
Maybe that's not the mother. Some birds will feed cuckoos in nests not their own.
That's pretty crazy! I'd like a cite. That seems like pretty strong evidence for the superstimulus hypothesis. Do they also feed chicks of their own species in other nests? Is it just philanderers? otherwise, it sounds like pretty poor fitness.
I just recall reading it somewhere, sorry. It could easily be wrong. (I did find something talking about a goose feeding a bunch of fish, though.)
Given 5000 species of mammals in the world that are guaranteed to have a number of facial features in common with humans and a number of developmental similarities, shouldn't some happen to super-stimulate our cuteness sense just by chance?
Lots of them superstimulate compared to human babies. It doesn't seem very coincidental to me. There are even birds that are cuter than human babies.
This doesn't rule out the baby hypothesis (although I don't accept it as the best one, myself). The important thing is that we do consider babies somewhat cute. By the hypothesis, if babies weren't cute at all (if everyone recognized how ugly they are), adults would care for them less. If true, this would be a beneficial instinct despite the attention wasted on cute animals. Since evolutionary adaptations are selected from chance mutations to begin with, it's not unreasonable for one to have mildly negative side effects. Can someone weigh in on how numerically probable it is that evolution hadn't improved this instinct further, to only work on babies, if we assume it has existed for X millions of years? We need hard numbers...
I don't find babies cute at all - the shitting crying obnoxious variety which really exists is strongly anti-cute. On the other hand I haven't met a single person yet who wouldn't go awwwwww when interacting with my cat.
I wonder if we don't repress thinking that babies are cute to some extent. Before I had one, I never thought babies were cute. I just thought: eww, work! or, eww, delayed career plans! They represent responsibility, which isn't cute. (Similar to contents of this thread.) But if you were walking in a forest and just happened to find a baby. If you didn't know it was a human baby, with various obligations and long-term ties, wouldn't you want to pick it up and snuggle it? Or not? I'll also add here, though it could be added other places, that I don't know if most parents think newborns are cute. (I actually have a theory that children are born a few weeks earlier than evolution long-term conditioned us for.) Children are maximally cute somewhere between 6 months and 3 years and each parent differs in exactly when and why.
9Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
Unless the baby is likely to be a relative, isn't this actually vastly less adaptive behavior than picking up a cute bunny rabbit that you can eat later in times of famine?
Now this is an explanation I can accept as at least remotely plausible without doing mental gymnastics!
Probably not. I don't have strong opinion if babies are above or below 0-cuteness level, it seems to vary from person to person - but they're definitely below mammal average baby cuteness.
Personally I agree, but many people report that they find babies cute. It's not universal.
That looks like just the evo-psych kind of reasoning Alicorn is warning against. Compare: given 5000 species of mammals that are guaranteed to have many physical features in common with humans, shouldn't some happen to super-stimulate our sexual attraction just by chance? Why would mating choice be that much more strongly selected than baby nurturing behavior? ETA: some good explanations for this difference have been proposed in the comments below: 1. Only mating choice is subject to sexual selection, which is a powerful force. (Eliezer) 2. Animals aren't deliberately trying to appear cute. But other humans are always trying to appear sexy. Therefore our sexual choice heuristics evolved to better eliminate false positives. (Me)

Actually, it makes perfect sense for sexual selection on sexual-attractiveness-features to be subject to far greater selection pressure and fine-tuning than baby-cuteness.

I'll make a testable prediction here: Cases of parental superstimulus (like baby ducks following a stick figure, infant monkeys getting attached to puppets, etc., if I'm remembering correctly) ought to be far more common / easier to fake than sexual superstimulus. I'll limit the key part of the prediction to complex vertebrates so that they have large enough brains to be complicated, but I wouldn't be surprised to find the rule more universal than that.

It's not 1 of 5000 species of mammals which is cuter than human babies - it seems like most of them are.
That's my point. Jack's theory, which rests entirely on the fact other animals look similar to human babies, does not explain why many animals are cute while not a single animal is (widely) sexually attractive.
Well, "catgirls" seem to have large appeal, but that's easily explained away - they're 99% human with 1% added kitten for massive cuteness signal in a way that doesn't interfere with any human sexual signals. It's a lot like 99% with 1% added flower in form of perfume being more sexually attractive than 100% natural human.
The cost of a mistake may be lower in the case of cuteness than sexiness. Indeed, sexual arousal is comparatively difficult to trigger, even by members of the actual target group: most humans don't find most humans of the opposite sex very attractive, while they may find most babies somewhat cute.
"May" be. I don't see this as being demonstrated. I prefer explanations like Eliezer's that show greater selection pressure - there's a whole range of explicit sexual selection, but no real selection on other species for cuteness. Here's another explanation: other species don't benefit from being cute-to-humans, so they don't spend their time trying to cheat humans into perceiving them as cute. But humans are deliberately trying to be sexually attractive and are very good at taking advantage of any weak points in our sexual heuristics. Therefore our heuristics evolved to eliminate false positives.
Most? You think there are more than 2500 species which adult humans would say are cuter than babies? That seems wildly implausible to me; I'd say no more than 300 or so are on par with babies, and fewer exceed it. That isn't too much; surely you could list maybe not >300 species but a measly 150. How about birds? >10,000 species there; you think there are >5,000 extremely cute birds? I'd venture that there isn't even a bare majority of cuteness at zoos - institutions would would select for cuteness.
If I had a list of species-weighted random pictures of mammals, I would take the bet that random mammal baby is cuter than human baby.
Where do you get this - "Superstimuli are typically artificial"?

Superstimuli are typically not found in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (or else the executions that latched on to them inappropriately would tend to decrease in frequency through the population). Although humans have spread to habitats outside Africa, the largest changes since then have been ones humans have made -- i.e. "artificial".

9Wei Dai14y
That is a reasonable explanation. (I don't know why you were downvoted, and voted you back up to 0.) But theoretically, it's possible to have a superstimulus for cuteness that existed in our EEA, if the maladaptive behavior that would be triggered by it is more easily prevented by a cultural norm or another adaptation, instead of by tuning down our cuteness sense for it.
Oh, it's absolutely possible -- this I why couched the phrasing in terms of "typically" and "tend to". And, well, votes are noisy. If I had to ascribe a reason, it would be definitional -- superstimulus could be used to just mean "trigger the adaptation more than what the adaptation was for", which need not imply any significant harm, or it could be used to mean "will trigger the adaptation to such a strong extent, that it does cause harm, either by inappropriate behavior to the stimulus, or disrupting appropriate behavior to the stimulus it was adapted for." I think the latter definition is more useful, though I admit that the examples I've tried to find for excluding based on it (finding patterns in randomness, finding faces in car grills) also didn't trigger more than the usual stimulus, so would have been excluded from the first definition as well.
-5Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
The editing (choice of

This is far cuter than all of them put together.

But how do you feel about these?
Those aren't nearly as cute. They have that ugly shape on them that doesn't contribute to paperclip functionality. You could clip that part off and make a second clip for each one of them, given all that they waste. So, not so much "nurturing" behavior induced.
4Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
What sort of nurturing behavior do you feel compelled to exhibit toward paperclips? Now I'm curious.
Well, I want to protect them and keep them in a safe place so that other processes in the universe don't convert them into ugly non-paperclip forms. Just looking at that thing makes me want to envelop it within the safe zone!
Cuteness actually disgusts me a little, and I find the baby more off-putting than the rabbit, so I guess I think the baby cuter too.
Cuteness disgusts me a little too. (I wrote this comment without having read yours.) I don't think it has anything to do with psychopathy (in my case, I think I am more empathetic than average by at least one standard deviation) but sensory fatigue and resistance to being emotionally manipulated.
I am lacking in empathy, but I'm nowhere near charismatic or confident enough to be a psychopath. In fact I lack empathy to the point where it would be nearly impossible for me to manipulate other people: I can't figure them out well enough to push their buttons. I possess a few cognitive traits associated with autism, though most likely not enough to be formally diagnosed as autistic.
I'm sorry about your lack of empathy, as it seems like it might feel isolating. (If it is -- I shouldn't project.) Are you sure you would like to push people's buttons if you could? (No guilt? Or are you relieved you don't?) One autism trait is difficulty making eye contact, because it is over-stimulating. Do you feel more comfortable looking at pictures of the baby with closed eyes than the bunny with the open eyes? Or does that not have anything to do with anything?
As it happens I'm pretty introverted so my difficulty in social situations doesn't bother me, I quite like having a fairly empty social calendar. I can cope fairly well in social situations, mostly because I've learned the proper rules for conduct they way I learn any unfamiliar information. The problem is when I find myself in unfamiliar social situations (like dating) where I don't know the rules. I'm really not keen on being able to manipulate people, though at times I think I'd be sorely tempted. In any case its a moot point because without extensive cognitive modification of kind currently unknown to science, I really don't think I'm able to manipulate people. I don't have the eye contact issue, and I really don't know why I find cute things off-putting. On rare occasions I find cute things endearing, for instance I liked the chipmunk-tarantula that someone else has posted on this thread. The only common thread I can find is that things that are uncanny or unusual tend not to disgust me even if they're cute. Also, apart from cute things I find almost nothing disgusting.
I have never heard of autistics having difficulty making eye contact with animals...
There are some correlations that suggest a possible relationship between finding cute things disgusting and psychopathy. (Non-edited version was over-confident, some comments below reflect that)
7Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
Citation needed.

Here. In particular see the meta-analysis (4th on the list). For the connection to babies and cuteness see the second to last on the list. To summarize: the fear expression mimics infantile expressions- enlarging the eyes and opening the mouth. The reason for this is that the way babies look elicits a caring and protection response in other people. Psychopathy is, at least partly, a dysfunction in processing fear expressions. There is decreased amygdala activity in response to distress expressions among psychopaths relative to control groups. Thus, finding babies disgusting suggests some pretty serious amygdala dysfunction.

There is no direct evidence that finding cute babies disgusting means you're a psychopath but it suggests that the something pretty abnormal is going on with the person's experience of empathy.

Note that saying someone is a psychopath that doesn't mean he/she has committed any crimes or is particularly damaging to society. Indeed, given some estimations it would be very surprising if there weren't several psychopaths reading Less Wrong. Higher even, since there is some evidence of comorbidity with other conditions that seem to be unusually common here (like ADHD... (read more)

6Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
Thank you for the references, upvoted. But it's not clear to me that "finding babies uncute" has actually been linked to psychopathy per se, albeit it might be something interesting to investigate because of a couple of chained correlations. In fact the term "fairly strong evidence" in the original comment does seem misplaced, unless you know of a specific experiment indicating that. (Also, would "fairly strong evidence" in this context mean say "a likelihood factor of ten for finding babies uncute, even though the base frequency of psychopaths is low" or "a substantial fraction of people who find babies uncute are in fact psychopaths"?)
Yes. This was why I qualified the initial claim with "fairly". Perhaps it should have been qualified further.
The way you characterized the evidence I would have said, "This comment reminded me: there's an interesting correlation between psychopathy and finding babies uncute - it comes down to the relation to the fear expression and infantile expressions." But I would want more evidence (particularly regarding alternative mechanisms for baby-distaste) before I claimed a likelihood factor as large as ten.
Alright, this + the sensitivity of the subject lead men to edit the original comment. Th
Indeed, I suspect that most people who aren't versed in psychology hear "psychopath" simply as a negative-affect-word meaning "sick, twisted person likely to have committed a heinous crime".
Here's a single data point -- a sociopath that does have a cuteness response. http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/988bl/i_am_a_sociopath_unable_to_feel_guilt_ama/c0l0j3u?context=3
Interesting AMA. No reason to think he is a psychopath though.
Sorry, I was thinking that psychopath was an out of date term for sociopath, but apparently it is a non-DSM diagnosis for a particularly extreme, predatory type of sociopath.
It really isn't your fault. The DSM is fracking mess on this. They basically defined ASPD (which is usually what sociopath refers to) to extend to pretty much everyone who breaks the law. It is just a way of diagnosing all criminals with something. It is dominated by things basically every criminal by definition has done. It is a fake disorder. It just happens that there is this real condition which happens to make it extremely likely a person will be diagnosed with ASPD. That said, having read more of the AMA I think there is a pretty high probability of psychopathy (I'm not qualified to diagnose but, then, I'm not sure the people who are know what the hell they're doing).
Wikipedia redirects "sociopathy" to "psychopathy".

IAWYC, but I wonder how human-universal the cuteness response to bunnies is (constantly being told "these are cute!" might increase it in our culture). I also wonder how many animals look cute that would have been likely prey in the African EEA.

I'm not sure what all critters people ate in the African ancestral environment, but I'd be really, really surprised if none of them were cute, at least as juveniles. (Which are easier to catch than healthy adults.)

Another interesting thought: Animals probably find human babies cute too.

Maybe so. I've heard anecdotal stories about female cats that have had baby kittens, and then take an interest when their owners had a newborn, becoming very protective of the (human) baby.

I regret not having the time to read all the comments before class, but, in addition to our culture which does anthropomorphize wee bitty aminals, we don't have the acquired distaste or taste for eating or repelling rabbits.

My mother is a gardner, likes puppies, kittens, etc, and hates rabbits. She's said a person will find them cute until they keep ripping up your flower bed.

It seems plausible that having been starving and relieved by rabbit meat a few times, a person would think "Yum!" upon seeing a rabbit.

Perhaps our cute instinct is slightly... (read more)

The site includes the cutest images. The cuteness response can be set off strongly by a cute creature associating with human stuff or (just a few of them) seeming to do a distinctively human gesture. Any theories about what's going on there?
4Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
It might be an awful experiment to perform, but if we can find a parent with a newborn child and sufficient self-honesty to be trustworthy, we can ask them whether or not, in all honesty, their own baby is cuter than those images, which were cute enough to make my head explode into candy. If a trustworthy self-honest rationalist parent looks at that and says "yes, my baby is cuter"... I'd have to say that explains a lot about parents and a lot about the continued survival of the human species.
What would be even more interesting would be to do a time-series. When do human infants have peak cuteness?
As a fairly observant and (as far as I can tell) realistic parent, I have noticed that both of my children have (up to their current ages of four years and 19 months) had several peak periods for cuteness. So far they have had peaks centred at the same ages: 5 months, 15 months and (oldest only so far) 3 years. This is not to say that they are not cute at any other ages, but at these ages they have been radiantly, eye-wateringly cute.
My baby boy was at or near the top of all the images for cuteness for about 1 year. Or I would have said so at the time.
3Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
Also, Alicorn's image found on a Google search is the cutest image on the top of TheCutest.Info. No matter how she found the image to begin with, this seems like highly relevant data! Even a search procedure that seems fair can manage to turn up an unfair point of comparison. Albeit some of the other images in the top 40 seemed far cuter than that to me - cuter than babies. Maybe I just don't like bunnies? How could evolutionary psychology explain that?
"Allison"? My name is not Allison. "Alicorn" is not my real name, related to my real name, derived from my real name, similar to my real name, or otherwise indicative on any level of my real name. Even if it were, I prefer not to disseminate my real name in most online contexts. For this reason SIAI-house-inhabiting persons have continued to refer to me as Alicorn, to avoid leakage of their knowledge of my real name. So even if you knew my real name, you should not use it.
9Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
I initially commented to the above effect that it was just a random brain-bleep and I did not remember your True Name if indeed I had ever been told it, but then deleted the comment, since if I had known your name to be Allison and genuinely slipped up, I would want to be the sort of person who simply wouldn't say whether or not it was a revealing slip-up, one way or the other, so as to maintain Plausible Deniability. To put it another way, if it had been your real name, I would want to be able to truthfully say, "Whether it was her real name or just a brain-cache substitution, I would not confirm or deny it one way or the other, so you cannot take any evidence from the fact that I am being apparently evasive." This requires that I say the same thing whether your name is Allison or not, since otherwise people can take Bayesian evidence from it. However since in this case you have already commented to this effect, I suppose I might as well confirm it. I did once know an Allison and my brain seems to repeatedly substitute that name for yours. I usually catch it before commenting, but not this time. There are other bizarre things my brain does along the same lines, for example, I simply cannot remember, even after having been told a dozen times or more, whether Peter Thiel's last name is pronounced Thee-el or Tee-el.
I apologize to all for making such a big issue about the typo. (I removed the flamebaitish part of my earlier comment.)
For my part, my brain automatically interprets your pseudonym as a portmanteau of "Allison" and "unicorn", and there doesn't seem to be much I can do about it. (Not that I would be any more tempted to refer to you as "Allison" than I would be to refer to you as "Unicorn", of course.)
Exactly the interpretation my brain had. Until, of course, Alicorn told me she is named for the horn of a unicorn.
Obligatory wiki link. It isn't the most reputable wiki link.
Yeah, "unicorn" would be a much better slip-up to make in terms of what the name actually means than "Allison".
Her real name is Carmen Sandiego.
It can't be, because I'm willing to reveal my location relative to the Earth.
True, but you haven't revealed your temporal location relative to me.
I am at the same time as you, moving in the same direction at the same speed, barring relativistic complications that are unlikely to be significant.
Yes, but how do I know you're telling the truth? Carmen Sandiego is purported to be very devious.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky14y
Well, but she wouldn't outright lie, would she?
Honestly, I'm sufficiently young not to know about the non-trivial characteristics of Carmen Sandiego.
We have? I'd assumed it was just habit =)
There are multiple reasons at work, but that's one of them, yes.
There is no user named Allison. [rest of post deleted]
Actually, I don't particularly know/recall Alicorn's real name, and that's a common mistake I have to correct whenever I write it - my brain seems to substitute the cache.
My name is not "Allison". "Alicorn" is not my real name, related to my real name, derived from my real name, or otherwise similar to my real name. And Eliezer has not met me in person yet, although he may have heard my real name from SIAI-house-inhabiting people, all of whom know it (though many call me Alicorn anyway).
Looking through those pictures, I get cuted-out, and want to go find that site about bunny suicides.
I think that may have the effect of crosswiring with the funniness reaction, although I can't access introspective data on the subject because I generally prefer my cute animal pictures to be devoid of humans and human artifacts.
Mothers praise and fuss over human babies that cutely imitate adults. It seems like good training for a critter that's going to grow mirror neurons and a sense of empathy.

Hey, let's play a game! Pick any comment in this comment tree and reply to it with a picture you consider cuter than it. The markup is ![](http://www.blabla.com/picutre.jpg) . Please do not reply to yourself. One picture per post please.

I'll start with the first Google Images result for "cute":