There’s no end to the devastating news in my social media feeds. As I write this, a beloved publication is under assault by its owners, fires are laying waste to my home state, and our country’s politics continue to descend into terrifying absurdity. On the best days, I can walk away from my computer and leave all the misery behind, at least for a little while. But on others, when I’m glued to my computer for work, I turn to Instagram, where I have created a haven of adorable, hilarious pets that instantly calm me down.
It might seem like a frivolous response, but it’s actually not. Research shows that looking at cute things, whether it’s babies, animals, or even inanimate objects, can ease stress, heighten productivity, and even improve marriages.
Our attraction to cute animals generally can be explained by “baby schema,” a concept proposed by the Austrian ethologist (or studier of animal behavior) Konrad Lorenz. The baby schema theory posits that humans evolved to be drawn towards creatures with big heads, large eyes near the center of the face, chubby cheeks, and a big forehead because they had to care for babies. The pleasure early humans derived from looking at babies made them more likely to care for and protect them, and we still have this tendency today. Our attraction to the characteristics of babies can be extended to include animals — in particular baby animals, who, like human babies, often have big heads and features.
Jessica Gall Myrick, an associate professor of media studies at Penn State University who has studied how internet animals affect our emotions, says that looking at adorable animals results in feelings of warmth, similar to how we might feel when we see a human baby.
“Viewing images or videos of cute creatures likely elicits similar feelings and motivations in people as our brains are not great at differentiating between mediated and real-life…