The Science Behind Cute Cat Photos

LOLCats may have gone the way of Star Wars Kid and Friendster, but our feline friends' takeover of the internet is going stronger than ever. Scientific inquiries into what makes something "cute" indicate that we might be drawn to cat pictures because they bring out our protective side.

A 2006 New York Times article says, essentially, that animals we consider cute have features reminiscent of human babies, or we anthropomorphize them to have traits we consider desirable. Like a giant panda, for example. In terms of appearance, pandas are big, fat, fluffy, and the black rings around their eyes give them a droopy, too-large-for-their-face appearance. In terms of behavior, pandas' leisurely schedules (i.e. eating bamboo and sleeping — even sex can prove to be too much exertion for the big guys) seem enviable when compared to our hyper-stressed, workaholic society.

Below, a cat dressed like a shark chases a duck on a Roomba. (Yes, we know):

There's also an evolutionary component to cuteness. In a 2005 article, Jeffrey Kurland, at the time an associate professor of biological anthropology and human development at Penn State University, explained that the reasons we find babies cute are twofold. The first has to do with mutations: Essentially, because at some point one of our very distant ancestors developed a genetic preference for "cute" characteristics, the babies who possessed them were more likely to survive into adulthood, reproduce, etc. The second reason, related to the first, is that cute babies become attractive adults. Therefore cute babies have an inherent evolutionary advantage from a reproductive standpoint.

Another study which came out this year adds yet another layer to cuteness: Cute things make us more aggressive. This can account for why we want to pinch babies' cheeks, or squeeze chinchillas. (Incidentally, this upswing in aggression corroborates the claim made in the Times article that cuteness activates the same receptors as cocaine and sex.) It also ties in to the protective aspect of cuteness. Our reaction to a cute animal makes us want to protect them, just as we would protect a baby from predators.

A perfunctory glance at the all-time top posts on r/aww, one of the premiere sources of cute content on the web, seems to support this theory of cuteness as a desire to protect. Many of the top posts show animals being afraid of human machines, struggling with basic motor skills, or being otherwise sympathetic. Notice that people aren't looking for pictures of cats killing mice: We want cats in way over their heads.

This is a polar bear cub running at you.

But the question remains: why cats? Unfortunately, there doesn't exist a definitive answer to that question. Here's what we do know: From an evolutionary standpoint, we're programmed to find mammals cute much more easily than any other type of animal, so the most popular cute pictures are going to be of mammals. Since the mammals we have the most ready access to are pets, it makes sense that the most popular pet in America — cats — would be the most photographed and shared.

But why cats so much more so than dogs? There are some theories out there, but unfortunately for us none of them are scientific, per se. They are, however, fun to think about. Maybe we like cat pictures because they seem to find themselves in trouble more often than dogs, and that triggers our protective streak. Maybe, as Mashable postulates, it's that we're able to project human traits onto cats more easily than dogs, who aren't very good at being anything other than doglike. (I don't think I have to explain why a cat having an existentialist crisis is funny.)

Maybe it just has to do with that mysterious je ne sais quoi that makes cats cats. That isn't a very satisfying answer, but until scientists tackle the problem head-on it's the best we can do. 

My cat, Chester, was unavailable for comment.