In Petaluma, California this weekend, judges will be looking over a line-up of squashed snouts, snaggled teeth, bulging eyes and bristling whiskers to decide on the winner of the World Ugliest Dog contest. Every year the contestants for this dubious honour melt the hearts of animal lovers across the globe. Unflattering photos of pets are also a common staple of viral internet content.

So why do we find ugly animals so appealing? And what makes odd-looking creatures so cute?

Evolution plays a role. According to Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz, human attraction to infantile features, such as big eyes, large heads and soft bodies, is an evolutionary adaptation that helps ensure that adults care for their offspring, guaranteeing the survival of their species. These infantile features were coined “baby schema” by Lorenz in 1943.

Weird-looking animals such as blobfish, pugs, aye-ayes and bulldogs all share these infantile qualities that trigger an affectionate response among humans and an innate instinct to nurture and protect.

And these infantile characteristics increase a person’s “protective behaviour, attention and willingness to care” for the individual and reduce the “likelihood of aggression towards an infant”, says Marta Borgi, a researcher at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome, who has studied how baby schema relates to human-animal interaction. (Read more about how this can lead us to become spider-murderers.)  

In humans, whose young “depend completely on their caregivers for sustenance and protection, such a response has clear value as it contributes to enhancing offspring’s chances of survival”, she says.

A 2014 study by Borgi and other researchers found that the concept of “cuteness” is hard-wired and develops at a very young age, with children as young as three showing a preference for animals and humans with big eyes, button noses and round faces.

“We showed that the attentive response towards infantile facial traits in dogs and cats emerges very early during our development,” says Borgi. The researchers analysed the eye movements of children aged three to six and found that they were more focused on images of dogs, cats and humans that had been digitally modified to give them enhanced infantile traits. They also asked the children to rate the images on a scale of one to five, with one being “not cute” and five being “very cute”. The children ranked round faces with high foreheads, big eyes and small noses as cuter than those with less infantile traits.

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