Few photographs stir as much emotion, excite as much affection as those of cuddly animals. Come on. Just look at this giant panda. Who wouldn’t want to wrap him up and take him home? The animators of Hollywood understood that reaction – they drew their cartoon creatures in a way purposefully designed to melt the heart: by sketching their subjects with rounded faces, plump bodies and big ears and eyes, they were tapping into the science of cute.
And it is a science. Take this panda. The reason we find him so endearing is nothing to do with sentimentality; it’s actually hardwired into our brains. The reason? Some of the panda’s physical characteristics resemble those of a newborn baby. And as we’re programmed to protect, caress and nurture our offspring, we feel impulsively connected.
Wildlife film-maker Gordon Buchanan, who’s presenting a documentary on the science of cute, explains: “When human babies are born, they have disproportionately big heads and big eyes. If you look at the face of the panda, you see those same features. Though panda eyes actually aren’t huge, the black markings around them make them appear so. The markings have evolved to make them look more threatening to would-be predators, but of course they have the opposite effect on us. That’s why we feel such warmth towards them. They remind us of our own young and the vulnerability of our young.”
Not that panda features have evolved to please us. The size of the panda head is all to do with the animal losing the taste for meat about five million years ago and turning vegetarian.
“It retains the teeth and claws of a carnivore but its skull has had to increase in size to deal with a diet of bamboo, which is incredibly hard to break down,” says Buchanan, who’s currently in India making a film about urban wildlife. “So it now has a denser, thicker and wider head – bigger than that of the polar bear and brown bear. Most bears are very cute when they’re babies but that doesn’t always follow into adulthood. Not so with the panda. It remains cute all its life. It just ticks all the ‘cute response’ boxes.”