The Science Behind Our Obsession with “Baby Yoda” and Others Like Him

By Andria Kennedy

Enter “The Child”

When Disney released The Mandalorian with their new streaming service, Disney+, Star Wars fans everywhere queued up in anticipation of the new story line. Not one of them – and from the lack of available merchandise, not the Disney Executives themselves – were prepared for the arrival of The Child (affectionately dubbed “Baby Yoda” by the ravening hordes when a proper name failed to be forthcoming) at the end of the first episode. Without warning, the title character was thrust into the backseat, and The Child became the driving force for memes and an instant demand for merchandise. Poor Mando and his code of honor was supplanted by a tidal wave of fans insisting on CUTE.

This isn’t the first time that a singular character has stepped onto the stage and run away with the entire show. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Baby Groot commanded instant “Oohs” and “Awws” from the audience, even when he presented Rocket with a severed toe.

While many flocked to Detective Pikachu for a chance to witness Ryan Reynolds voicing the iconic character (and because it was a chance to see the character morph into a less foul-mouthed version of Deadpool), the draw was still the cute persona of the treasured Pokemon, or a chance to see another favored Pokemon character. The truth is, cute sells – probably better than sex.

Kindchenschema

As it turns out, there’s a reason Marketing Departments hone in on the cuteness factor when they target audiences. Konrad Lorenz, credited as the father of modern ethology, coined the term as kindchenschema, or “baby schema.” Simply put, it means that there is a set of physical traits common to all babies that drives us to feel an attraction for them:

  • Large head
  • Small face
  • Large, rounded eyes
  • Short snout
  • Chubby cheeks
  • Squat limbs
  • Funny or uncoordinated gait
  • Playful behavior

These features are the same as those found in human infants, which is what attracts us. Of course, human evolution dictated the formation of those features following our transition to bipedalism and subsequent narrowing of the pelvis – humans can only be so large at birth and have to develop slowly.

Doping on Dopamine

Within 140ms (that’s around 1/7 of a second) of seeing something cute, our orbitofrontal cortex becomes activated; this is the part of our brains responsible for controlling emotions and pleasure. The brain then releases the good old neurotransmitter dopamine in response. This is is the same neurotransmitter released when we fall in love or experience any pleasurable or rewarding feeling, and as a result our minds commit that feeling to memory. The emotional response also triggers a need to parent or care, which is why feel an immediate response to want to snuggle the creature (after all – we like to snuggle our loved ones). Researchers have mapped this process using neuroimaging studies as a better way to understand parenting behavior.

Researchers also looked at the human reaction across species, and they found the same result: it turns out that those “puppy eyes” will melt hearts every time. No surprise, though, women tend to have a stronger weakness for cute than men.

Animals United?

Now, we know that all mammals are cared for by at least one parent for a period of time – it’s in the definition of a mammal – and all mammals do tend to share those same infant characteristics to promote that parental care. However, not every parent adopts the same level of care. Rabbits only return to the nest once or twice a day. Meerkats leave the young with a designated “baby-sitter” – usually an older juvenile – while the rest of the group leaves the den to go hunting or defend territory. Adorable as they are, harp seal pups are left alone on the ice while their mothers hunt for food. Their parenting styles are based on survival versus our penchant for snuggle-mania. Those same adorable features still encourage parental care, but the overriding need to make it through the day is stronger than the desire to pick up every infant for a session of cuddle-time.

In fact, our own evolutionary relatives don’t share the same penchant for “baby schema” that we do. In 2013, researchers found that two different Japanese monkeys failed to show any interest in baby animals outside of their own species. So while we think everything is cute, the rest of the animal kingdom has a narrower focus.

Anti-Cute

On the other end of the spectrum are those babies that our brains don’t perceive as cute – or even attractive; not many people line up for a chance to cuddle blobfish fry. Precocial animals – those that are able to care for themselves right away – tend to lack the requisite “cute” features. For instance, most reptiles resemble miniature versions adults. This isn’t to say that there aren’t reptiles that don’t practice parental care, though. The American alligator will guard her nest and her young for several months, and baby alligators DO have large eyes and stubby snouts. For most of us, though, there’s an inherent dislike of reptiles that keeps us from wanting to snuggle with one of the scaly predators.

Chicks, especially newly hatched, are the next thing to ugly. They have bulging eyes, no feathers, and no coordination. It isn’t until they reach the fuzzy stage that we start to appreciate them as “cute.” Yet chicks receive enormous amounts of parental care from both parents (usually).

Our perception of cute is unrelated to the parenting method of the animal itself. The downside of the cute vs. not-cute debate comes into play when animals appear on the Endangered Species List and require our intervention and assistance. No one, it seems, wants to help an “ugly” animal – as if survival were reminiscent of a trip through a high school cafeteria.

Hollywood Hype

Whether Marketing Executives want to admit it or not, they thrive on our mesocorticolimbic systems. Everything from Snoopy to Hello Kitty to Minions reflects back on those same stereotypical features that turn us into melted piles of goo. How else could they take a character like Jabba the Hutt and shrink him down to Jabba’s son in The Clone Wars movie and get a reaction of “Awww”?

From the time we made the first internet search for kitten pictures and videos, we were sunk. Dopamine is addictive, and we crave that feeling of reward and happiness. Even people without children still have the same wiring in their brains, and they feel an instinctive urge to cuddle.

Is it taking advantage of biology to sell millions of dollars of merchandise? Of course it is, but what else is Marketing good at? Is it going to stop millions of ravening fans from tuning in to The Mandalorian when it returns in October? Is it going to stop people from looking up baby animal videos on YouTube? Will it put a dent in the number of kittens or puppies being adopted over the adult animals in shelters? Absolutely not.

Bring on the dopamine!