I’m a firm believer in the idea that the world can be broken up into two kinds of people: Those who purchase motivational posters festooned with baby animals and those who laugh at them. I’ve always placed myself firmly in the latter category. Does this make me a misanthropic killjoy? Maybe. But I’m willing to live with that, which is why I find it so odd that I’ve become completely and utterly addicted to Cute Overload.
Given that the site won this year’s Best American Weblog Award, I’m guessing you’ve heard of it. But perhaps, you (unlike me) have better things to do with your time than croon at the computer screen, so here’s the deal: Cute Overload is a clearing house for all things cute, namely puppies, kittens, gamboling lambs, bunnies with floppy ears, thumb print-sized turtles and the like. What do you do there, you ask? You luxuriate in warm, fuzzy feelings, while admiring the unrelenting cuteness of it all, of course.
You might wonder why Cute Overload is more acceptable to malcontents, like myself, than Mickey Mouse T-shirts and plush toys. I don’t have a definitive answer, but I chalk it up to CO Founder Meg Frost, whose language of self-parody has made cuteness respectable for the post-punk generation.
But that doesn’t really answer the ultimate question, which is: Why do baby animals evoke the same kind of visceral nurturing response in some of us that human infants do?
I imagine there have a been a pile of evolutionary psychology papers written on this subject, but I’ve yet to stumble on one. My pet theory is that baby animals (particularly mammals) exhibit many of the same social bonding behaviors as human babies–like staring, crying, nuzzling, and playing–that make the human nurturing machinery kick into gear.
Now, any parent can tell you that when the “caring impulse” gets triggered, it brings with it great joy. The experience of “falling in love” with one’s child is well-documented. But with this ecstatic love comes a sense of profound responsibility and, well, fear–fear of failing to protect your charge from the dangers of the world, your own foibles, the harsh economic realities.
I think one of the reasons that some people find baby animals so seductive is that they trigger the activation of the “nurturing system,” (and the rush of good feeling that comes with that) sans emotional baggage and long-term commitment. They offer us a simple, straightforward route to the joy that comes from exercising our altruistic instincts.
Purely speculative, you say. Well, yeah. But it sorta makes you wonder if these chimpanzees might be experiencing a similar kind of emotional reward when they interact with other species in a positive way, doesn’t it?: “Experimental evidence reveals that chimpanzees will help other unrelated humans without a reward.”