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The Cute Factor: Why We’re Obsessed with Pictures of Babies and Animals

Scroll through any social media site and you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid a bombardment of images of cute babies and adorable animals. In fact, so pervasive is our obsession with these tiny creatures that we tend to transform them into internet superstars overnight.

As a prime example, look no further than Boo the Pomeranian pooch, who, with more than 16 million Facebook fans, is one of the most famous animals on the planet. Which brings up the question: What is it about infants and animals that grabs our attention and triggers us to share their pictures with the world?

Over the years, numerous psychological studies have been conducted to try and get to the bottom of the “cute” phenomenon. Overall, their results tell us that a whole range of physical and emotional effects are triggered when we’re presented with cute images.

Image by Ramona Heim

Most impressive, perhaps, are the physical changes that occur in our brains. When viewing pictures of infants and baby animals, a part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens is activated, and a huge surge of the pleasure hormone, dopamine, is released. Overall, our stress levels reduce, our aggression lessens, and we tend to transform into happy, coo-ing, caring, baby-nurturers.

Interestingly, this “pleasure center” of the brain is also activated in response to sex, music, love, exercise, and drugs. So, in fact, it could be argued that we literally get a high from looking at cute images. No wonder we’re obsessed!

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However, it’s not just any image that can garner this powerful reaction. Instead, it seems that our preferences for what makes something cute have deep evolutionary roots. The theory known as “baby schema” (Kindchenschema), was proposed in 1949 by Nobel-prize winning ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who argued that we are repeatedly drawn to the same set of “cute” features: large, wide eyes; high foreheads; small noses; round, chubby cheeks; and soft, small bodies.

Moreover, when we are presented with these particular features, a strong and instinctual nurturing response kicks in and we experience a desire to protect our small and helpless offspring. A clever evolutionary adaptation, indeed.

Image by Lana Langlois

Of course, ask any animal lover and they will tell you that it’s not just human babies that elicit this reaction. On the contrary, it seems that this hard-wired response is so powerful that it often transfers over to other baby mammals that share similar “baby schema” characteristics, which is why we’re more likely to obsess over puppies, kittens, or bear cubs than their full-grown parents. An evolutionary glitch, perhaps, but one which makes for great animal companions.

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When you consider these strong instinctual reactions, then combine them with all the time that we spend online, it’s hardly surprising that babies and animals are such an internet hit.

As further proof, we’ve gathered together some of Shutterstock’s cutest baby and animal images together in the lightbox below. Have a browse and be prepared to get hit with some heart-melting emotions.

Top image by Tomsickova Tatyana

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