Inherent cuteness is not only self-evident but can be scientifically measured. It suggests that people prefer kittens and pups to babies.

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I’ve long suspected I have a character flaw: I am far more charmed by kittens and puppies—in fact by any non-human baby animals—than baby humans.

It’s a kind of intra-species treason, I suppose.

For one thing, kits and pups are far more entertainingly interactive far earlier than Homo sapiens infants.

But the connection feels far deeper than that. When I see any baby animal, say at a mall or park, I feel almost uncontrollably compelled to approach them, take their furry little faces gently in my hands and begin a conversation: “How ya doin’, buddy?”

And often, they respond with a spasm of wriggling, energized, licking joy.

‘Oh, a baby’

Conversely, when I come across a human infant, I think, “Oh, a baby.” But then I don’t quite know what to do with them. Compared to animated (no pun intended) kitties and puppies, babies for quite a while seem only very vaguely aware that they (or you) even exist. There’s nothing lucid to interact with.

I understand. The learning curve for much smarter human infants is probably necessarily steeper and longer than that for their more instinctive distant cousins in the animal world. There’s a dormant period.

So I love the instant intimate, interactive connections I can form with lower-order animals over the more obscure relationships I seem able to form with infant humans. And warm, fluffy infant animals also seem hugely more adorably cute to me than human babies, with their chubby folds and dripping drools and blankness.

Of course, as baby humans mature they become much more aware and in sync with their environment, and human-to-human relationships, at least intellectually, are ultimately far more robust and complex than human-to-animal.

Yet when it comes to primal, familial-type love and affection, it’s my experience that humans can’t hold a candle to the uncritical, authentic, guileless devotion of a pet—young or old—that has been treated with consistent loving kindness.

My current pet, a lovely mottled-gray female cat whose name, of course, is Buddy, is a mellow joy, even though I had her front paws declawed (to save our leather furniture, which she was relentlessly shredding). And even after her paws suffered a painful post-surgery infection, she was still devoted to my wife and me following a week or so of hobbling around (which she clearly didn’t blame on us).

Now she’s back to jumping up on bookshelves just below the ceiling without a twinge. And jumping down.

Ahhh, cats.

It’s not just me, I’ve learned.

Kittens, puppies cuter than human babies

Surprisingly, nearly everyone finds kittens and pups more adorably cute than human babies, because the former somehow better “hack” the cuteness neurons in our brains, according to an article in the BBC’s Science Focus program. More on that later.

But, beyond that, this human enthrallment with cuteness applies to everything. Whatever we find cute captures our heart to some degree, even before we’re aware of it.

As Professor of neuroscience Morten Kringelbach, of the universities of Oxford (England) and Aarhus (Denmark), explains,

In fact, just glimpsing [a cute animal’s or human baby’s face] will trigger an innate caregiving mechanism, a neurological response that’s been sharpened across thousands of years of human evolution.

Ultimately, this cuteness response is an important adaptation for us. Without it, I simply don’t think we’d survive as a species.

Human beings basically have a response to what we call “cuteness” as we come to the world too early. We’re not quite cooked. Most animals can immediately get up and walk around after birth. We can’t. We need a lot of care—and need to make sure our young are appealing enough to receive it.

It’s scientific. With modern brain-scanning technology, such as magnetoencephalography—it maps brain activity using magnetic fields—researchers “have gained extraordinary insights into how our instinctual reaction to cuteness works,” writes Thomas Ling, author of the Science Focus piece.

There is even a specific brain region—the “fusiform face area”—that “maximally” triggers emotional responses to faces. And when we look at babies (of any species), there’s activity in our orbitofrontal cortex (an area strongly involved in emotions and pleasures, located just above your eyeballs) at the same time as the activity in the fusiform face area,” Kringelbach’s explains.

It’s a double-whammy of cuteness. And it’s largely subconscious.

Cuteness can be ‘engineered’

Researchers have even created a formal cuteness rating system keyed to objective measurements of facial elements, such as eye size and “cheek chubbiness.”

In fact, scientists discovered that they can artificially improve a baby’s cuteness score with subtle photo editing, which then makes humans more positively responsive to the image.

“Adorability, in other words, can be engineered,” Ling wrote.

This is what we’ve been doing more purposefully with pets than human babies over long millennia—perhaps because eugenics with “lower” animals perhaps seems somehow less soulless and creepy.

Unfortunately, as animals of all kinds age, their cuteness factor naturally and progressively erodes. So cuteness’ shelf life is finite.

Which brings me back to the adorability divide between human and non-human infants.

When I see any baby animal, say at a mall or park, I feel almost uncontrollably compelled to approach them, take their furry little faces gently in my hands and begin a conversation: “How ya doin’, buddy?”

The evolutionary role of cuteness

In fact, scientific data reveals that, on average, puppies and kittens—with their bigger Yoda-like eyes and ears—score higher in cuteness than human babies from a human perspective, with puppies being “marginally” deemed cutest. Even adult dogs are seen as cuter than Homo sapiens babies.

“It’s amazing our reaction to cuteness, something that can propagate our species, is useful to other animals too,” Kringelbach marveled. “But it’s important to remember they don’t do it in a conscious or malicious way!”

Although research suggests that both men and women respond to the cuteness of baby humans similarly, men don’t buy that assessment. Other research suggests that men delude themselves on that because finding things cute seems unmasculine.

My own relative disinterest in human babies was shared by a disappointed essayist mom in a Kveller website article titled “I liked my cat more than my newborn.” She wrote about her first-born during his first days of life:

I didn’t like my baby son. There, I said it. He was a scrawny, squalling, insatiable little thing, rightfully incensed by, and impatient with, my parental incompetence and self-pitying despair. His arrival heralded my first, unwelcome foray into surgery, as insouciant doctors sliced open my midriff, along with my dignity. Neither has recovered. …

I regarded this dark-haired, dark-eyed infant with bewilderment: I thought your spawn was supposed to look like you? It wasn’t socially acceptable to voice it, but frankly, I preferred my cat: She was quiet, predictable, undemanding, and less inclined to projectile vomit on my Kindle. …

[I]f I ever tell you I think your infant is cute, it’s a bald-faced lie—they all look the same to me).

Eventually, this essayist—her name is Hannah Tobin Cohen—learned to love her child, and a second one (who also seemed disappointingly homely and cantankerous at birth), more than her own safety and happiness. But it was a tedious process.

Reasons we like kittens over babies

Elaina Wahl, a junior animals writer for the news site Buzz Feed, listed an amusingly accurate “19 Things You Understand If You Like Kittens More Than Babies,” including:

  • Meowing kittens are the most precious things; crying babies need to stop.
  • When a kitten stares at you, it’s not creepy like when babies do.
  • An attractive person holding a kitten is desirable, an attractive person holding a baby is questionable.
  • Kittens are bundles of cuddles as opposed to a baby’s diapers, spit and snot.
  • Kittens can do things on their own, while babies are just kind of defenseless blobs.
  • The same could fairly be said of puppies.

But at the end of the day, though, even if you’re not, as I am not, a “baby person,” you can sense their primal power in evoking a strong protective impulse.

Whenever someone hands me a human baby to hold, I’m immediately terrified I might drop it.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...