cathyr19355: Stock photo of myself (Default)
posted by [personal profile] cathyr19355 at 04:17pm on 28/07/2007 under , ,
This entry is the fault of [livejournal.com profile] fadethecat, because she introduced me to the "Kittenwar!" page.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the "Kittenwar!" page shows you a collection of photos of cute kittens (and a few older cats for ringers) in pairs. You "vote" for the cutest one by clicking on it, or you click on a "refresh the page" link to indicate a draw. The page tabulates ratings for all the photos, many of which are darn cute.

After revisiting this page a half a dozen or more times, though, I started thinking. It was awfully easy to predict which kitten would win in most cases. Why?

I started thinking about it, and realized that the reason is that there are only a limited number of parameters that a kitten, or, for that matter, any animal, must meet to be considered "cute" in a human's eyes. Once you know that, and can assess which factors a given pair of contestants displays, it's usually obvious which one is cuter. Here's my set of factors:

Young is cute. Although a very young (say, several days old) kitten may just look like a drowned rat, as a general rule the younger the animal, the cuter we think it is. There are good reasons for this that are rooted in evolutionary biology that I won't go into here.

Neotenous is cute. Neotany is a fancy word meaning "having infant or babylike characteristics": evolutionary biologists use it a lot. For my purposes, a better definition would be "looks like a typical anime hero." So if your kitten has a (somewhat larger than normal) large head with big bright eyes, smooth fur and a bouncy attitude, it will register as "cute." Most healthy kittens have these traits; no surprises there. To the extent your older cat has these traits, she too will register high in the "cute" sweepstakes.

Pretty is cute. Big surprise again; looks count. This is why the Sphynx, a hairless breed of cat with wrinkly skin no matter what its age, comes in consistently last in the "Kittenwar!" ratings. (See also the "Young is cute" paragraph above.)

Small is cute. Seems unfair, doesn't it? I think this one is related to the "young is cute" factor (young critters are much smaller than adults) and the next factor, which is that...

Vulnerable is cute. This is why a photo of a sleeping cat, no matter what age, is more likely to elicit the "Awwww" response (signifying recognition of cuteness!) than is a photo of a wide awake cat of similar appearance. Most people see "small" as "vulnerable," which is why small people (like me!) get coddled in some ways that we find annoying and don't necessarily deserve. A number of cat behaviors, such as rolling over to expose a soft white underbelly, are vulnerability signals and elicit the "cute" response. However, we also go "awww" when we see a kitten being fierce, or doing something that looks like human behavior. Why? I think it's because of the contrast. The fierceness of the kitten's demeanor contrasts with how vulnerable it really is, and emphasizes the vulnerability. Same thing when the cat imitates a human. Cats aren't human, so when they act human, they look awkward or silly and, therefore, vulnerable. Result: "Awwww."

By looking at "Kittenwar!" photos with these factors in mind, I bet you'll be able to guess which one got the higher rating most of the time, and your misses will likely be in situations where the two "contestants" are fairly close in appearance and behavior. Try it and see!
Music:: bizarre Internet jazz-oid channel from Eric's office
location: home on the range, where else?
Mood:: 'amused' amused

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