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Babies and Bunnies: A Caution About Evo-Psych

52 Post author: Alicorn 22 February 2010 01:53AM

Daniel Dennett has advanced the opinion that the evolutionary purpose of the cuteness response in humans is to make us respond positively to babies.  This does seem plausible.  Babies are pretty cute, after all.  It's a tempting explanation.

Here is one of the cutest baby pictures I found on a Google search.

And this is a bunny.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the bunny is about 75,119 times cuter than the baby.

Now, bunnies are not evolutionarily important for humans to like and want to nurture.  In fact, bunnies are edible.  By rights, my evolutionary response to the bunny should be "mmm, needs a sprig of rosemary and thirty minutes on a spit".  But instead, that bunny - and not the baby or any other baby I've seen - strikes the epicenter of my cuteness response, and being more baby-like along any dimension would not improve the bunny.  It would not look better bald.  It would not be improved with little round humanlike ears.  It would not be more precious with thumbs, easier to love if it had no tail, more adorable if it were enlarged to weigh about seven pounds.

If "awwww" is a response designed to make me love human babies and everything else that makes me go "awwww" is a mere side effect of that engineered reaction, it is drastically misaimed.  Other responses for which we have similar evolutionary psychology explanations don't seem badly targeted in this way.  If they miss their supposed objects at all, at least it's not in most people.  (Furries, for instance, exist, but they're not a common variation on human sexual interest - the most generally applicable superstimuli for sexiness look like at-least-superficially healthy, mature humans with prominent human sexual characteristics.)  We've invested enough energy into transforming our food landscape that we can happily eat virtual poison, but that's a departure from the ancestral environment - bunnies?  All natural, every whisker.1

It is embarrassingly easy to come up with evolutionary psychology stories to explain little segments of data and have it sound good to a surface understanding of how evolution works.  Why are babies cute?  They have to be, so we'll take care of them.  And then someone with a slightly better cause and effect understanding turns it right-side-up, as Dennett has, and then it sounds really clever.  You can have this entire conversation without mentioning bunnies (or kittens or jerboas or any other adorable thing).  But by excluding those items from a discussion that is, ostensibly, about cuteness, you do not have a hypothesis that actually fits all of the data - only the data that seems relevant to the answer that presents itself immediately.

Evo-psych explanations are tempting even when they're cheaply wrong, because the knowledge you need to construct ones that sound good to the educated is itself not cheap at all. You have to know lots of stuff about what "motivates" evolutionary changes, reject group selection, understand that the brain is just an organ, dispel the illusion of little XML tags attached to objects in the world calling them "cute" or "pretty" or anything else - but you also have to account for a decent proportion of the facts to not be steering completely left of reality.

Humans are frickin' complicated beasties.  It's a hard, hard job to model us in a way that says anything useful without contradicting information we have about ourselves.  But that's no excuse for abandoning the task.  What causes the cuteness response?  Why is that bunny so outrageously adorable?  Why are babies, well, pretty cute?  I don't know - but I'm pretty sure it's not the cheap reason, because evolution doesn't want me to nurture bunnies.  Inasmuch as it wants me to react to bunnies, it wants me to eat them, or at least be motivated to keep them away from my salad fixings.


1It is possible that the bunny depicted is a domestic specimen, but it doesn't look like it to me.  In any event, I chose it for being a really great example; there are many decidedly wild animals that are also cuter than cute human babies.

Comments (835)

Comment author: LauraABJ 22 February 2010 02:50:29AM 45 points [-]

I would find this argument much more convincing if it were supported by people who actually have children. My mother goes beserk over a smiling infant in a way I cannot begin to comprehend (I am usually afraid I will accidentally hurt them). My husband, likewise, has an instant affinity for babies and always tries to communicate and play with them. He was raised Jewish with the idea that it is unclean to have animals in the home and does not find animals particularly adorable. In our culture we are inundated with anthropomorphised images of animals in television and given stuffed toys and pets that we take care of like children. It's not that surprising that we find animals cute when we focus so much attention on them as if they were little people. I do not know that such evaluations of 'cuteness' would hold cross-culturally, especially in cultures where people do kill and eat 'cute' animals on a regular basis.

Comment author: inklesspen 22 February 2010 03:49:35AM *  3 points [-]

Other hominids have been known to keep pets. I would not be surprised if cetaceans were capable of this as well, though it would obviously be more difficult to demonstrate.

Comment author: mattalyst 22 February 2010 03:57:29PM 35 points [-]

"Drastically misaimed" really says nothing about whether or not a cuteness instinct would be a good adaptation, though. A counterexample: it's a fact that our visual systems are acutely sensitive to rapidly-moving things. The evo-bio hypothesis is that this is predator detection. Does the fact that 99.999999% of the rapidly-moving things I notice aren't predators negate this hypothesis as well?

I can't think of very many cases in which people endanger themselves or their reproductive chances for the sake of cute animals. I'm sure it's happened once or twice, but using this argument means demonstrating that the number of potential children lost due to finding bunnies cute is greater than the number of actual children attended to due to finding them cute.

As an aside, I think that Google in this case is adding to the confusion. The evo-bio cuteness theory is generally stated as being about a system that detects facial markers that strongly differentiate babies from adults - the key ones being eyes large relative to head size, pursed mouths, round cheeks, and round chins. Some baby animals, when viewed up close in Google, display some of these characteristics. In the wild, however, baby animals are almost never seen up close, and even when they are, they trigger the facial recognition systems only in dribs and drabs, like bad CG.

Comment author: HughRistik 22 February 2010 07:24:11PM *  7 points [-]

mattalyst said:

A counterexample: it's a fact that our visual systems are acutely sensitive to rapidly-moving things. The evo-bio hypothesis is that this is predator detection. Does the fact that 99.999999% of the rapidly-moving things I notice aren't predators negate this hypothesis as well?

Nope, because the rapidly-moving things that are predators matter way more. False negatives in predator-detection are more costly than false positives by orders of magnitude.

I can't think of very many cases in which people endanger themselves or their reproductive chances for the sake of cute animals. I'm sure it's happened once or twice, but using this argument means demonstrating that the number of potential children lost due to finding bunnies cute is greater than the number of actual children attended to due to finding them cute.

Excellent observation. Perhaps some people find baby animals of other species cuter due to evolutionary baggage from common ancestors, which has never needed to go away because it didn't hurt our reproductive success.

n the wild, however, baby animals are almost never seen up close, and even when they are, they trigger the facial recognition systems only in dribs and drabs, like bad CG.

That's my intuition, also.

Comment author: George 24 February 2010 01:23:39AM 2 points [-]

"I can't think of very many cases in which people endanger themselves or their reproductive chances for the sake of cute animals." A) Drivers swerving to avoid cats and bunnies etc. B) All the warnings about leaving bear cubs alone. I can think of non-cuteness explanations that probably cover some part of each but it seems idle to reject any role for cuteness in those survivability risks.

Comment author: iii 21 October 2012 05:38:05PM *  5 points [-]

I think that any situation that could not have occurred prior to the 20. century can be discarded out of hand when discussing the evolutionary roots of human behavior.

Comment author: [deleted] 21 October 2012 10:32:20PM 2 points [-]

<nitpick>In English it's not idiomatic to write ordinal numbers by adding a full stop after the cardinal, as it is in German. Normally one writes “20th” (with the “th” optionally superscripted).</nitpick>

Comment author: Swimmer963 12 March 2011 02:53:36PM 6 points [-]

Actually, I find the baby about 75 000 cuter. This might have something to do with the fact that I'm a) a girl, and b) right at the age when, biologically speaking, I should be having kids. I see babies in the street and get warm fuzzy feelings. My (female) friends and I at work talk about how much we want to take home every baby in the Parent & Tot swimming classes. We show each other pictures of friends' babies and go completely gaga. Just wanted to point out that this may be something that varies with sex. (Although not for everyone, of course.)

Comment author: Alicorn 12 March 2011 03:43:20PM 4 points [-]

I'm a girl too, and I'm 22 (was 21 when I wrote the article) - I'm not sure if you categorize that as the biological age where I should be having babies, but it's not just a sex thing, although that might factor in weakly somehow.

Comment author: rabidchicken 12 March 2011 08:43:25PM 4 points [-]

Trying to determine what effect if any sex has is difficult, because the reaction of males / females to young children is highly influenced by exposure. Anecdotally, when families I know have had children, any girls who have some relation to the family are often encouraged to play with them / babysit them, or are given tutorials on things like changing diapers. I can only think of one guy who had the same treatment, although males may also just try to hide that they are good at dealing with babies. I have worked in a nursery with children around age 5 and up, and this is when it actually becomes possible for me to find them cute, I don't think its a coincidence.

Instead of getting taught from an early age, the general trend seems to be that men are just expected to pick it up on the spot when they get married. This is a lot more difficult than it sounds, and may account for the large number of guys who worry about commitment in the first place. When I hold a baby, I feel the same as i did when I first started playing an expensive instrument, or installed an OS on my computer, paranoid because I was worried I was going to break something. If it wasn't for that, then the odds of me finding babies cute would go up considerably.

Comment author: joaolkf 05 March 2010 01:05:45PM *  16 points [-]

A cognitive module for cuteness only needs to make us find babies a nice thing and enhance the probability of parental care. It simply doesn’t matter if, besides doing that, the same cognitive module make us find bunnies or orthorhombic sulfur crystals at low temperature cute, so long this doesn’t have any deleterious effects. Probably a cognitive module that can find cute only human babies and not bunnies is more evolutionary improbable and developmental costly having the same relevant behavioral results of a more cheap and universal cognitive module for cuteness. Evolution only needs to shape cognition in order to generate, more or less, the right type of behavior. It DOESN’T have to, and in most cases it doesn’t, shape cognition nicely, in a way we would look at it and say “nice work”.

Comment author: johnsonmx 24 October 2012 10:55:38PM 2 points [-]

Yes, and I would say finding bunnies cuter than human babies isn't a strong argument against Dennett's hypothesis. Supernormal Stimuli are quite common in humans and non-humans.

I think this argument could be analogously phrased: "The reason why exercise makes us feel good can't be to get us to exercise more, because cocaine feels even better than exercise." Seems wrong when we put it that way.

Comment author: ChrisPine 22 February 2010 03:44:01PM 24 points [-]

Don't any of you have children?? Newborn babies are one thing, but there's a cuteness of seeing small, perfect little versions of yourself or your mate... I don't think a bunny could really compete.

No, other people's babies aren't that cute, but mine sure as hell are.

And in any case, I don't really see how this relates to... whatever it is you are saying about ev-psych (or the deeper mystery of cuteness). Why would you expect evolution to make us only find human babies cute? Evolution only has to work hard enough to keep us from abandoning our babies, and to hell with the (bunny-related) side-effects. Why would evolution care how cute you think bunnies are, as long as it's not so much that you start eating your babies and raising rabbits?

Comment author: brazil84 22 February 2010 04:14:35PM 2 points [-]

That thought occurred to me too. Evolutionarily, if our sexual instincts are very strong and well aimed, the cuteness instinct arguably doesn't need to be so precise.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 22 February 2010 11:45:59AM 15 points [-]

Maybe the bunny has evolutionarily converged on the mammal shared cuteness pattern, but the baby has been forced to diverge by other pressures? Human babies are born very underdeveloped relative to other species. I've read speculation that this is due to the upright walking, hip shape, head size, brain size compromise, and that seems sensible to me. Cuteness optimization may have been shoved aside as lower priority.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 22 February 2010 07:50:36PM 30 points [-]

I agree that evolutionary psychology is very prone to abuse and should probably usually be avoided, but this seems like a terrible example to me. The hypothesis that cuteness is our evolved response to baby-like features does NOT predict that babies will be the cutest thing.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 February 2010 08:23:47PM 5 points [-]

Very compactly put. The data simply do not contradict the theory in the first place.

Comment author: DSimon 14 March 2011 01:19:33PM 5 points [-]

To the baby picture, my response is "aw, that's cute".

When I saw that bunny picture, my entire face scrunched with joy up for a good 15 seconds, no exaggeration. My hands rose to my face and covered my cheeks in the "Home Alone" configuration, although my expression was I'm quite sure one of joy rather than fear. I had to employ a fair amount of willpower to stop myself from saying "D'awwwww" out loud.

Consider me a data point in favor of your counter-hypothesis.

Comment author: HughRistik 22 February 2010 07:41:06PM 5 points [-]

The fact that some humans who find baby animals cute often treat them like babies, refer to their pets as "my babies," and engage in baby-talk to them is consistent with the notion that considering these animals cute is merely a byproduct of human baby-perception. I think part of the reason that Alicorn's baby bunny is so cute is that it is holding up its arms, like a baby wanting to be picked up.

Comment author: wedrifid 24 February 2010 03:27:26AM 4 points [-]

The problem with popularity: I've just been searching the web hoping to find someone linking to an investigation into cuteness that delved a bit deeper than spouting 'just so' stories. What I found is that not only are the most prominent results LessWrong.com links, most of the next in line links are external responses on the topic that link here.

Comment author: FrankAdamek 22 February 2010 03:33:35PM 4 points [-]

I regret not having the time to read all the comments before class, but, in addition to our culture which does anthropomorphize wee bitty aminals, we don't have the acquired distaste or taste for eating or repelling rabbits.

My mother is a gardner, likes puppies, kittens, etc, and hates rabbits. She's said a person will find them cute until they keep ripping up your flower bed.

It seems plausible that having been starving and relieved by rabbit meat a few times, a person would think "Yum!" upon seeing a rabbit.

Perhaps our cute instinct is slightly misaimed, we lack most of the normal associations we would gain from these animals, and in reverse have gained large associations in the other direction, exploding a slight evolutionary mistake. Common kids shows might have more difficulty in making babies super cute, being that some of their audience are infants themselves. Then they'd feature adorable, wittle bittle..."you"s?

Comment author: Vladimir_M 12 March 2011 06:57:45PM *  9 points [-]


In fact, bunnies are edible.

Babies are edible too. Cannibalistic infanticide is a fairly common phenomenon throughout the animal world. It is widely practiced by chimpanzees, some of the closest evolutionary relatives of humans. (It's mostly done by male chimpanzees, but sometimes also females; see the linked paper for more details and references.)

Unless some group-selection mechanism is in operation (and such explanations are always controversial), there is no straightforward reason why one should care about unrelated babies. Killing them may well be adaptive behavior. Infanticide is thus unsurprisingly a widespread phenomenon in nature -- and once you kill a baby, you might as well eat it too; hence cannibalistic infanticide. Even when it comes to one's own kids and relatives, there are situations where killing them may be cost-effective in selfish gene terms, and parental and kin infanticide is also far from nonexistent among animals. All these behaviors are a regular subject of study in evolutionary biology, including evolutionary psychology.

Therefore, noting that babies can look less cute than other things whose only relevant characteristics are nutritional is hardly an argument against state-of-the-art evolutionary psychology. It is certainly a good argument against dilettantish dabbling in it, which is indeed all too common, even by otherwise formidable intellectual figures such as Dennett. Of course, the real academic evolutionary psychology has its own problems with sorting out well-substantiated theories from just-so stories, but they are at wholly different levels.

Comment author: bgrah449 22 February 2010 03:46:46PM *  9 points [-]

It seems very oversimplified to say, "We think babies are cute because we have to." "Cuteness" casts a pretty wide net when you start thinking of all the things we say are "cute." A sample list of things I've heard described as cute:

  • Babies
  • Bunnies
  • Targets of sexual attraction
  • Small consumer goods, such as tiny containers of shampoo, small forks, etc.
  • Some old men
  • Targets of sarcastic comments ("That's real cute, but .. ")

It seems like we reserve the word for "things that are vulnerable/harmless/ineffective and don't realize it, which then triggers an urge to keep the thing's inaccurate self-perceptions about its own effectiveness intact."

Comment author: Blueberry 24 February 2010 02:04:18AM 6 points [-]

This is confusing the map with the territory. We use the word "cute" for all those things, but we don't feel the same way about them all, and we don't mean the same thing by that word in most of those cases.

Comment author: Blueberry 24 February 2010 02:54:50AM 4 points [-]

I was asked to clarify and expand this comment, so:

The original post was about a particular feeling that humans often have in certain situations, a feeling that is often triggered by looking at young animals. This feeling is something that exists in the real world (the territory).

We use the word "cute" (among others) to describe something triggering this experience. This is part of our map of the world. However, no word unambiguously refers to just one thing in the real world. That's just not how language works. As it happens, the word "cute" is commonly used to refer to lots of other things as well. Targets of sexual attraction may be said to be "cute", but in a different way than bunnies or kitties, though these may be related. Using the word "cute" sarcastically is a very different use of the word with a completely different meaning. My original point was that if something is described as "cute", that may be a similarity on the map but not the territory.

I may use the same word for a sexually attractive human, a kitten, a small fork, an old man, and a sarcastic comment (map similarity). But for each one, I may mean something completely different, and I may have a completely different response with a separate type of explanation (territory difference).

Comment author: bgrah449 24 February 2010 05:05:51AM 3 points [-]

tl;dr: Cuteness is the word that we use when we want something to experience a feeling of safety or otherwise be more confident than we think they would feel without special effort to make them feel that way.

Thanks for expanding. I want to throw out a warning that we're treading dangerously close to the foul line, but I think we're still in-bounds.

Using the word "cute" sarcastically is a very different use of the word with a completely different meaning.

I understand the general point that words can have different meanings, and I'm open to the possibility that I'm falling victim to the typical mind fallacy. I don't have any alternate meanings suggested yet, so I'm going to try to preemptively defend my definition below.

I want to test this hypothesis with a visualization experiment. I don't expect it will take longer than about 2 minutes to do all of the visualizations. This is the scene I want you to imagine: the person, animal, or object is standing or sitting, whichever can be expected of it. If it's a person, he or she has a blank, unsmiling, neutral, unaggressive facial expression. If it's an animal, its face is similarly at rest. It's facing either Data or Spock (take your pick). Imagine Data or Spock saying the sentence out loud to the person, animal, or object.

  • 52" plasma television set - It's flipping through many channels, previewing each one for about a second; someone is channel-surfing. "You will be replaced by better, cheaper technology in less than a year."

  • Baby - "You would test very low on an IQ test. You will continue to be a net resource drain for several years."

  • Sexiest person alive - Doesn't matter who or what gender - this person is desired greatly, and desired primarily for their ability to satisfy you, personally, sexually. Take a minute and picture this person facing Data or Spock. "Your opinion isn't respected in virtually any matter; people agree with it out of hope they'll be able to sleep with you."

  • Bunny - "In a year's time, you will be harvested and your muscles will be cooked in a soup."

  • Cute boy or girl - Crucially, "cute" describes a particular type of attractive person. Imagine a person you would describe as cute, but not a person who is attractive who could not be described as cute. For me (and some others), "attractive but not cute" is a category that includes "hot," for example. If the word "cute" is a synoynm for "attractive" with perfect overlap, skip this question and note it below. If you imagined a girl: "You are valued for your womb and your abilities as a nanny. Men will want you for a wife but will consistently lust after other women for their sexual satisfaction." If you imagined a boy: "Women will tolerate your lovemaking, but you will be valued for your patience and because your timidity makes women around you feel outgoing, bold, and charismatic."

  • Hyena - "You will never have the opportunity to reproduce."

  • Tiny shampoo bottle - Imagine a small carnation-pink shampoo bottle, perhaps 2 inches tall. It has a white, spherical cap. The spherical cap has a very small, intricate, carnation-pink ribbon affixed atop it, as if it were a Christmas gift. "Throw this bottle away; its small volume makes it effectively worthless as a shampoo container."

  • An old man - Imagine an old man who could be perceived as "cute." Perhaps an old man, short, 90 years old, who walks very slowly, bringing his elderly wife, of roughly the same build, a plate with a sandwich on it, and he's torn the crust off the sandwich because he knows his wife doesn't like it. His hair is combed impeccably over his bald spot. His pants aren't long enough for his legs; they're "highwaters." After he sits next to her, he pats her knee. Now imagine this old man facing Data or Spock. "Your wife is still hiding love letters in her closet from her boyfriend before you, who left her. She still reads them and has never been as satisfied since marrying you."

  • A creepy old man - Leering, sexually active. "You give women the creeps, so you won't have sex again between now and when you die."

Did some of these statements seem meaner than others? Did any of these make you want to say to Data or Spock, "Don't say that!" or "You're going to hurt his/its feelings"? If so, which?

My hypothesis is that the following visualizations will incite, in the typical person, either slight anger at Data or Spock, an instinct to reassure the object at which the unpretty truth is directed, or in some other way some protective behavior, such as an urge to refute the hypothesis especially emphatically for that particular visualization, more than the others: baby, bunny, cute boy/girl, tiny shampoo bottle, old man. My hypothesis is that the following incited either zero emotional response or a non-negative emotional response: TV, sexy person, hyena, creepy old man.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 January 2013 05:28:25PM *  3 points [-]

Interesting. My empathy seems to be working in a weird way.

  • TV set: it doesn't sound mean at all -- it's an inanimate fucking object. (I'm assuming the old TV set will be sold or given away, rather than disposed of or destroyed, otherwise it would sound somewhat mean -- towards the hypothetical person who could otherwise use the TV set, not towards the TV set itself.
  • Baby: not mean at all if the baby is too young to understand, very mean otherwise. By this point, I was thinking that “can they understand?” must be it.
  • Sexy person: somewhat mean. So far, so good; but...
  • Bunny: okay, this does sound kind-of mean, and the bunny most definitely doesn't understand English, so my heuristic was broken. (I'm not sure whether me feeling empathy for a bunny is a bug or a feature.) Next:
  • Cute girl: slightly mean.
  • Cute boy: not mean at all. (But the fact that in certain ways I'm probably more feminine than usual for males might have something to do with that.)
  • Hyena: wow, that does sound somewhat mean (more than for the bunny). WTH? Some part of me must be an Azathoth worshipper.
  • Shampoo bottle: not mean at all. Can't feel empathy for a bottle even if I try to force myself to. (And, as I once already mentioned, I do feel a sliver of empathy for the molecules in this picture when they're hit particularly hard. What's the difference? The fact that I've done moshing which is analogous to thermal collisions but I've never done anything remotely analogous to being a shampoo bottle about to be thrown away?
  • Old man: OMG, telling him that in front of his wife? 'The hell is wrong with you, Mr Spock?
  • Creepy old man: the “You give women the creeps” part doesn't sound mean at all, the “you won't have sex again between now and when you die” sounds extremely mean (but the fact that I'm involuntarily celibate myself probably has something to do with this).
Comment author: Blueberry 24 February 2010 09:14:01AM 2 points [-]

I want to throw out a warning that we're treading dangerously close to the foul line, but I think we're still in-bounds.

It strikes me that tabooing "cute" might be useful here. Regardless of how we use the word, going back to the OP, what is it we mean when we talk about our reaction to say, a picture of a bunny or a kitty or a baby? For me, it's an "awww" response, coupled with a smile and an urge to hold or pet or protect the animal. I don't feel that way about a miniature object, exactly, or an old man, or a sexually attractive person. At best it's a very muted version of the feeling.

Comment author: Tiiba 22 February 2010 06:53:36AM *  26 points [-]

I wanted to say this for a long time: human babies aren't cute. Certainly not newborns. If I didn't know better, and saw a newborn, I would perform an exorcism. They look like creatures from the Uncanny Valley.

Edit: Seventeen points? Maybe I should make this a top-level post. Opinions?

First I lose about that many from a very thoughtful post because of my unusual sense of humor. Then I gain them back on... this? People, start making sense.

Comment author: Dustin 22 February 2010 07:51:34PM 14 points [-]

1 year ago, I would have completely agreed.

Then we had a baby, and now I see cuteness in babies all over the place. None as cute as my baby, though.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 22 February 2010 01:40:31PM *  7 points [-]

I note that cuteoverload.com has no babies on it, as far as I can tell. Cats, dogs, and little balls of feathery fuzz, but no babies.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 11 March 2010 02:07:17PM 7 points [-]

This study suggests looking at kitten pictures makes you more careful, improving performance in fine-motor dexterity tasks such as mock surgery.

I wonder if this could lower the error rate of computer programmers, and whether I should buy Eliezer a kitten.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 March 2011 01:09:26PM 2 points [-]

You'd have to give Eliezer a sequence of kittens unless you're hoping that the cuteness of the kitten will have an imprinting effect which will affect Eliezer's reaction to the eventual cat.

Comment author: DSimon 14 March 2011 01:23:55PM 2 points [-]

It would probably be more efficient (and less cruel to the kittens who would eventually lose importance) to just have Eliezer look at a filtered-for-cuteness lolcats picture stream each morning.

Comment author: Sticky 22 February 2010 06:04:44PM 7 points [-]

We find bunnies in general cute, but not humans in general -- so it makes sense that a baby bunny would be cuter than a baby human. It combines babyness and bunnyness, as compared to a human baby who only has babyness. We care about the human baby more than the bunny baby because we value humanness quite apart from cuteness.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 22 February 2010 09:00:36AM 7 points [-]

Our sense of cuteness may be tuned to respond optimally to young children, instead of newborns. (I'm guessing here based on the fact that humans look like young children for a much longer period of time than like newborns. My personal sense of cuteness is extremely insensitive for some reason.)

What causes the cuteness response? Why is that bunny so outrageously adorable? Why are babies, well, pretty cute? I don't know - but I'm pretty sure it's not the cheap reason, because evolution doesn't want me to nurture bunnies.

I'm not convinced that you should be "pretty sure", but I'm more interested in why you used the word "cheap". What does that mean in this context?

Comment author: Alicorn 04 April 2017 11:16:35PM 3 points [-]

If anyone is curious about my stance on this now that I have reproduced:

  • My baby is cuter than most babies. Some people who are not related to him have agreed with me on this but there is probably still bias in the sample. He does have traits I have always considered advantageous in babies generally or desirable in mine specifically though.

  • He is very difficult to photograph well. He gets distracted by the camera and moves at inopportune times. Wildlife photographers probably have solutions to similar wildlife-related issues and maybe pro baby photographers do too. I don't know how this affects image quality ratios in Google results.

  • My baby is much more appealing as a process than a snapshot. He is soft and squishy and warm in addition to being nice to stare at, and has learned to smile and laugh in response to things we do, and he is endearingly incompetent at many tasks he attempts. Some animals can do that sort of thing too though.

I still think it's suspect that the cuteness response fires strongly in response to bunnies etc., but I may have stacked the deck more than I would have if I had known more at the time.

Comment author: pwno 22 February 2010 09:50:10PM 3 points [-]

Another interesting thought: Animals probably find human babies cute too.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 February 2010 09:57:12PM 2 points [-]

Maybe so. I've heard anecdotal stories about female cats that have had baby kittens, and then take an interest when their owners had a newborn, becoming very protective of the (human) baby.

Comment author: lavalamp 22 February 2010 03:53:11PM 3 points [-]

Some potential confounding factors to consider:

  • Society spends the first 18 years of kid's live's teaching them how and why not to have babies (not complaining, just pointing out that it could affect one's cuteness judgments).

  • Your cuteness detector might very well be tied to detecting your own genetic material. IOW, you might find your own babies very cute, and those of others, not so cute. (My parents claim that this is the case, I wouldn't know.) And you, being female, would have a very good idea of what babies are genetically yours...

Comment author: taw 22 February 2010 01:53:35PM 3 points [-]
Comment author: NancyLebovitz 22 February 2010 03:46:53PM *  2 points [-]

The site includes the cutest images. The cuteness response can be set off strongly by a cute creature associating with human stuff or (just a few of them) seeming to do a distinctively human gesture. Any theories about what's going on there?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 February 2010 08:27:29PM 3 points [-]

Also, Alicorn's image found on a Google search is the cutest image on the top of TheCutest.Info. No matter how she found the image to begin with, this seems like highly relevant data! Even a search procedure that seems fair can manage to turn up an unfair point of comparison.

Albeit some of the other images in the top 40 seemed far cuter than that to me - cuter than babies. Maybe I just don't like bunnies? How could evolutionary psychology explain that?

Comment author: Alicorn 22 February 2010 09:01:20PM *  2 points [-]


My name is not Allison. "Alicorn" is not my real name, related to my real name, derived from my real name, similar to my real name, or otherwise indicative on any level of my real name.

Even if it were, I prefer not to disseminate my real name in most online contexts. For this reason SIAI-house-inhabiting persons have continued to refer to me as Alicorn, to avoid leakage of their knowledge of my real name. So even if you knew my real name, you should not use it.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 February 2010 09:48:30PM 6 points [-]

I initially commented to the above effect that it was just a random brain-bleep and I did not remember your True Name if indeed I had ever been told it, but then deleted the comment, since if I had known your name to be Allison and genuinely slipped up, I would want to be the sort of person who simply wouldn't say whether or not it was a revealing slip-up, one way or the other, so as to maintain Plausible Deniability. To put it another way, if it had been your real name, I would want to be able to truthfully say, "Whether it was her real name or just a brain-cache substitution, I would not confirm or deny it one way or the other, so you cannot take any evidence from the fact that I am being apparently evasive." This requires that I say the same thing whether your name is Allison or not, since otherwise people can take Bayesian evidence from it. However since in this case you have already commented to this effect, I suppose I might as well confirm it.

I did once know an Allison and my brain seems to repeatedly substitute that name for yours. I usually catch it before commenting, but not this time. There are other bizarre things my brain does along the same lines, for example, I simply cannot remember, even after having been told a dozen times or more, whether Peter Thiel's last name is pronounced Thee-el or Tee-el.

Comment author: komponisto 22 February 2010 10:05:15PM 5 points [-]

For my part, my brain automatically interprets your pseudonym as a portmanteau of "Allison" and "unicorn", and there doesn't seem to be much I can do about it. (Not that I would be any more tempted to refer to you as "Allison" than I would be to refer to you as "Unicorn", of course.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 February 2010 08:19:55PM 3 points [-]

It might be an awful experiment to perform, but if we can find a parent with a newborn child and sufficient self-honesty to be trustworthy, we can ask them whether or not, in all honesty, their own baby is cuter than those images, which were cute enough to make my head explode into candy.

If a trustworthy self-honest rationalist parent looks at that and says "yes, my baby is cuter"... I'd have to say that explains a lot about parents and a lot about the continued survival of the human species.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 22 February 2010 08:31:44PM 2 points [-]

What would be even more interesting would be to do a time-series. When do human infants have peak cuteness?

Comment author: TomM 15 March 2011 05:02:21AM 4 points [-]

As a fairly observant and (as far as I can tell) realistic parent, I have noticed that both of my children have (up to their current ages of four years and 19 months) had several peak periods for cuteness. So far they have had peaks centred at the same ages: 5 months, 15 months and (oldest only so far) 3 years.

This is not to say that they are not cute at any other ages, but at these ages they have been radiantly, eye-wateringly cute.

Comment author: Jack 22 February 2010 03:37:19AM *  19 points [-]

How come everyone is missing the obvious answer? The human ancestor that first developed attachment to babies may be an ancestor we share with rabbits.

(Edit, Also: Human babies may have evolved to be uglier for other reasons -less hair, bigger heads- and those features may have been selected for more than cuteness.)

Edit 2: Metaphorically, our cuteness program is like running Netscape Navigator 1.0 or something. It sort of does the trick but isn't exactly adapted for modern uses

Comment author: byrnema 22 February 2010 02:56:14PM 7 points [-]

I agree with Jack: large eyes embedded in a small puffy face are general mammalian triggers for cuteness. Humans thinking that kittens are cute is just an accident.

Though 'accident' isn't the right word. Mammalian mechanisms are simply very general among mammals and robust. I read this somewhere and assimilated it as obviously true. And then I experienced how true it was when I had kids.

We're always 'being mammals' but I guess we're somewhat desensitized to the mammalian things we do every day. During pregnancy, childbirth and raising a child, a whole slew of new behaviors are activated and it's just amazing to realize the extent to which behaviors are instinctual and rely on physical mechanisms like tactile stimulation, visual cues and internal timers.

Breast-feeding of course. Did you know that breast-feeding is an interactive activity, where the baby has to suck of course, but also the mother needs to 'let down' the milk supply? Tactile stimulation (like sucking or kneading) will trigger 'let down', but also it can be triggered if the mother just thinks about her baby being cute. Women often have a lot of trouble 'pumping' milk for later use because the apparatus doesn't mimic human babies very well. Even if it mimics the way a child sucks during the first 30 seconds, the longer scale 5-15 minute temporal dynamics are missing. There's a difference between the milking patterns at the beginning and the end.

A few months before birth there's the nesting behavior, and then the timing of labor is a very complex, oscillatory process with many false and half starts.

Other timing mechanisms include the biological clock that makes women more inclined to want children, ovulation, the multi-stage birth event itself, lactation rhythyms as mothers and babies fine-tune and adjust over weeks and months. One of the most amazing examples of this, for me, was that I noticed a 1-3 minute pattern in the way I attended to my children. Especially someplace where they were amused and relatively safe but possibly in and out of sight, like at the park. For 1 to 2 minutes, I would just think my own thoughts, possibly chat on the phone or look through a magazine. After about 2 minutes, I noticed a growing anxiety that would not be relieved until I spotted my child. found this very curious and played around with it, deliberately not looking for my child for small periods of time to determine how regular this mechanism was. It seemed very regular.

Comment author: DanArmak 22 February 2010 03:01:22PM 2 points [-]

I agree with Jack: large eyes embedded in a small puffy face are general mammalian triggers for cuteness. Humans thinking that kittens are cute is just an accident.

Then I repeat my question: please give examples of non-primate mammalian behaviors that indicate the animal found an animal of a different species "cute".

A second question: does your theory allows distinguishing between "cuteness" reaction and nurturing/baby-raising protective behavior?

Comment author: byrnema 22 February 2010 03:35:06PM 2 points [-]

A second question: does your theory allows distinguishing between "cuteness" reaction and nurturing/baby-raising protective behavior?

Mine doesn't. I think that instinctual mechanisms for "nurturing/baby-raising protective behavior" is a really big deal for mammals, so much so that the mechanisms have a tendency to be overly robust. (E.g., some men lactate.) However, I would defer to an expert on this, and would ask one (read a book) if something rested upon the question.

please give examples of non-primate mammalian behaviors that indicate the animal found an animal of a different species "cute".

I look forward to the day when we can scan an animal brain and see what they think and feel. Till then, I can't comment on whether animals think their babies are 'cute'. There's no doubt though that nurturing/baby-raising protective behavior is triggered across species. However it seems context-dependent: the parenting animal must have reason to consider the baby part of the family. So domesticated animals are likely to show this behavior to other pets and babies. (My cat tried to teach my first baby how to hunt when she started crawling, but didn't bother with the second.) Birds will take care of other birds if they're in the nest, etc. And of course there's Tarzan, which might have been based on some kind of observation of this kind.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 22 February 2010 03:38:58AM 6 points [-]

That would explain how it is we can find rabbits cute at all. But to find them equally or more cute than human babies would seem to not be explained by your answer.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 February 2010 07:27:37AM *  4 points [-]

How come everyone is missing the obvious answer? The human ancestor that first developed attachment to babies may be an ancestor we share with rabbits.

Because I don't consider it plausible. The 'cuteness' response is just far more malleable than the, you know, bit where you aren't a rabbit. See, for example, all the other sensory preferences that are are finely honed per species.

EDIT: I will add that it is slightly more plausible to me that rabbits are cute because they look more like baby ancestral primates than baby humans do on some key features (little and fury). Even so I would be reluctant to assign too much confidence to such a theory.

Comment author: djcb 25 February 2010 06:47:00AM *  2 points [-]

I'm not sure the answer is so obvious.

For example, baby pinguins and other birds can be very cute; baby lizards usually aren't. I think the theory goes that we've evolved from something that looks somewhat lizardy, but definitely not like a bird.

Comment author: mattnewport 25 February 2010 07:13:56AM 5 points [-]

cute lizard

I rest my case.

Comment author: Unnamed 22 February 2010 07:12:01AM *  2 points [-]

Do we know whether adult rabbits find baby rabbits cute? If not, that would count against the common ancestor hypothesis.

Comment author: RobinZ 22 February 2010 03:51:56AM 1 point [-]

"An". "An" obvious answer. There's at least one other which has been proposed in other replies to this post: social conditioning.

I have to say that yours is quite interesting, however. What else does it predict?

Comment author: wedrifid 22 February 2010 07:32:02AM 6 points [-]

I have to say that yours is quite interesting, however. What else does it predict?

That instincts are orders of magnitude slower to evolve than physical attributes at the scale of 'people and bunnies'.

Comment author: DanArmak 22 February 2010 11:52:31AM 2 points [-]

That instincts are orders of magnitude slower to evolve than physical attributes at the scale of 'people and bunnies'.

The instincts have to reference physical attributes to identify cute things. If physical appearance evolves so quickly, how can the instinct continue to apply to it?

IOW, to accept this theory, it is necessary to believe that the things we find cute are all similar to that shared ancestor (or shared-ancestral juvenile). Does anyone know if this actually makes sense within what we know of ur-Mammalian creatures?

Comment author: soreff 22 February 2010 05:55:48PM 3 points [-]

If attraction instincts (cuteness or sexual) evolve much more slowly than physical attributes, then shouldn't supermodels be chimpier than they are?

Comment author: mattnewport 22 February 2010 06:48:55PM *  4 points [-]

Is 'supermodels' supposed to be shorthand for 'highly sexually attractive'? Supermodels are not generally the women who are the most sexually attractive to heterosexual males but are selected for a variety of other attributes such as a 'striking' appearance, height and extreme slenderness.

That said, women who are considered very sexually attractive are not particularly chimpy either. They do share other traits that are not as common amongst supermodels however.

Comment author: ideclarecrockerrules 22 February 2010 06:07:25PM 2 points [-]

This pretty much convinced me that the fine variances of sexiness have much more to do with memes than genes. It shouldn't be hard to test if it is the case with cuteness as well: just find a culture that hasn't been exposed to Disney/Pixar films.

Comment author: bogdanb 22 February 2010 10:51:48PM 3 points [-]

Not that hard to do. Look at woman representations in art. Until the last century, they were quite different from current photo-models. (I tend to think of most of them as “fat”, despite the fact that I know they’ve better reproductive characteristics.)

Comment author: komponisto 22 February 2010 04:00:22AM 7 points [-]

What else does it predict?

That lots of other animals should share our opinions about cuteness.

Comment author: gwern 22 February 2010 03:10:43PM 1 point [-]

What else does it predict?

How about, the closer something is to human, the more cute? Since there will be 2 million years of pressure honing 'cuteness' to primate needs, and counteracting the x million years of pressure about rabbits.

Comment author: Cyan 22 February 2010 02:38:54AM 6 points [-]

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the bunny is about 75,119 times cuter than the baby.

You're wrong. That baby is way cuter than the bunny.

Comment author: RobinZ 22 February 2010 02:53:41AM 4 points [-]

For people with cutoffs for low karma comments: Poll on relative cuteness of babies and bunnies - karma balance.

Comment author: Nominull 25 February 2010 09:09:19PM 4 points [-]

problem with the poll: the karma changes have left me several hundred karma points in the red to downvote anything.

Comment author: jimrandomh 22 February 2010 02:40:59AM 7 points [-]

Perhaps the cuteness response is tied to domestication - ie, evolution wants us to take the bunny with us until it gets old enough to stop being cute, and then eat it.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 22 February 2010 11:38:33AM 3 points [-]

Then it fails again. People get attached to pets. They tend not to eat them, even if they're edible.

Comment author: prase 22 February 2010 05:56:51PM *  4 points [-]

Not during famines. We can afford to have pets, but if you are an often hungry member of a hunter-gatherer tribe, cuteness may be a good measure to compensate your desire to eat the bunny on the spot.

Also, we don't eat all domestic animals. Dogs or horses are quite important examples.

Comment author: JohannesDahlstrom 22 February 2010 06:19:06PM *  8 points [-]

We don't, for some memetic reason, I guess, but many cultures do. New evidence suggest that dogs were actually first domesticated for livestock purposes (but see also this).

Incidentally, returning from the South Pole, Amundsen and his team did slaughter their dogs one at a time, as they had planned to do from the beginning, and used them for feeding both themselves and the remaining dogs. Scott's expedition considered killing their trusty companions immoral (not to mention ungentlemanly), a stance that ultimately cost the lives of both the humans and their dogs.

Comment author: thomblake 22 February 2010 06:25:35PM 3 points [-]

Also, we don't eat all domestic animals. Dogs or horses are quite important examples.

horse meat

dog meat

I was very grossed out by a little shop advertising "Carni Equine" in Mantova, but apparently the locals did not feel the same, as it was on several restaurants' menus.

Comment author: JohannesDahlstrom 22 February 2010 06:56:04PM 2 points [-]

Thin slices of Mettwurst, made at least partially of equine meat, are quite a popular sandwich filling in most of Central and Northern Europe. It's not uncommon for adolescent boys to tease their (usually female) horse-aficionado peers with jokes built around this fact.

(Incidentally, horse meat is apparently very high quality - high-protein, low-fat. And of course, equines - gazelles and others - were an important part of our ancestors' cuisine.)

Comment author: pjeby 22 February 2010 07:40:48PM 6 points [-]

Incidentally, horse meat is apparently very high quality - high-protein, low-fat.

What do "low fat" and "high quality" have to do with one another?

Comment author: JohannesDahlstrom 22 February 2010 08:24:08PM 4 points [-]

Point conceded; I wrote hastily. It does seem, though, that horse meat has quite favorable cholesterol values and an omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.

Comment author: ikrase 09 January 2013 10:35:43PM 2 points [-]

Yeah, that's really odd. Personally I have no awwwww response to human babies - in fact they actually disgust me a little - but I do have an awwwww response to human children and a sometimes-sexualized awwww response to some adult humans. In all cases my awwwww response is opposed to (although it can coexist with) an awe response.

It was mentioned that people are socialized to find bunnies cute, but I think that looking at gender differences in the same culture might reveal something since I don't think men are socialized that strongly.

Comment author: alexflint 23 February 2010 12:12:19PM *  2 points [-]

It would be surprising if we found all babies cute because most babies do not carry our genes. Even a simplistic application of evo-psych would predict that we'd find our own babies very cute, while we'd be unmoved or even disgusted by others' babies.

Whether this is actually the case is a matter for careful experimentation and analysis, however. Evolution as a theory is not sufficiently precise to reliably make such detailed predictions (I believe this was Alicorn's original point)

Comment author: fmuaddib 23 February 2010 03:52:59PM 3 points [-]

In fact non social species, like felines, are unmoved or even aggressive toward babies not kin related to them.

But we are primates, and being primates very social, we are subject to trivers reciprocal altruism, in other words: childs are very prone to help strangers if they feeds them. They can be adopted and parassitated as muscular force in exchange of a small piece of the meal, smaller than those of the natural childs of course, as foster care studies have demonstrated. So we can find others child very attractive too, because they can be very useful to us, because they are easily exploited due to the long period of dependence from adults.

This is not directly related to the cutness, anyway, that is a physical trait, with specific characteristics (big facial elements, head bigger than the body, small arms, etc.). If one puppy develops those traits to deceive his parents, those traits will be there to be seen by all the other people too. Unless there is a specific adaptation to resist such aestetic feedback in non kin related puppies, like in some non-social species, the brain response at a cute face is the same.

Comment author: wnoise 23 February 2010 07:08:47PM 2 points [-]

All babies carry the vast majority of our genes. We're extremely related to all other humans -- the complication is that they're also our most relevant competition. Tiny fractions of a percent differ between one person's kids and their neighbors. Nonetheless, these are the genes we're geared to care about.

Comment author: brazil84 22 February 2010 02:11:52PM 2 points [-]

Fundamentally, aren't you asking why furry mammals are cuter than non-furry mammals?

Comment author: MBlume 22 February 2010 04:56:51AM 2 points [-]

These babies are soooo much cuter than your bunny.

Comment author: Alicorn 22 February 2010 05:27:09AM *  4 points [-]

The video of babies has the advantage because they are moving around. If the bunny hopped and sniffed things and twitched its nose and groomed its whiskers and nibbled on parsley and crept under a bush and peered out at you, it would be 75,119 times cuter than them.

Comment author: taw 22 February 2010 01:55:09PM 2 points [-]

I don't find these babies cute at all, and their voices are quite unpleasant. (also I have a cat, but no babies)

Comment author: fmuaddib 23 February 2010 03:00:29PM *  7 points [-]

Here is the final, most likely explanation for the cuteness paradox:

1 - Cuteness genes are positively selected by many things, but the main filter, at least in mammals, is THE MOTHER INVESTMENT. Puppies (humans, bunnies, all of them..) compete for the investment of the mother, because she is the one that feeds them. They cannot feed themselves until they are adults. Cuteness is a deceivement device and (because it costs physical resources) an honest signal for communicating the mother that the deceiver is the puppy most worth of the maternal investment. Even non mammals use cuteness (i.e. birds and other oviparous species) but their cuteness is rarely perceived as so because of the huge physical differences with the mammals, differences that our mammalian brain cannot see as cute but as deformities.

2 - The selective pressure is bigger when the number of puppies is greater, because the competition is more tight.

3 - Female bunnies bears more children. A litter of rabbit kits (baby rabbits) can be as small as a single kit, ranging up to 12 or 13; however there have been litters as big as 18. So the competition is harsh, and consequently the selective pressure on the cuteness genes is bigger.

4 - Women give birth to 1 or 2 children at once on average, consequently the competition and the selective pressure on cuteness genes is greatly inferior to the selective pressure on the bunnies.

5 - Assuming that cuteness is an universal estetic trait (big facial elements, head bigger than the body, small arms, etc.), developed at the same way in all mammalian brains, it is then reasonable to conclude that human babies display cuteness traits, but are not as cute as the bunnies, because those are subject to a much more tight competition.

Findings that can falsify this hypothesis: - the existence of a species of mammals that bears many children at once that are not cuter than those that bears few, provided that those are normally competing for a shortage of resources from the mother. We need to take in consideration other factors as well, like shortage severity, likeness of the mother to drop some of his puppies if attacked or in extreme hostile environments, and so on.

Comment author: George 24 February 2010 01:17:05AM 4 points [-]

Mammals that bear many children less cute than a species that bears few: rats vs guinea pigs. But in any case it is very strange even to suppose that cuteness would be a universal aesthetic.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 24 February 2010 06:29:46AM 3 points [-]

Cuteness is not an universal trait, otherwise we would share this Vulture's mum's intuition.

http://g1.globo.com/Noticias/Brasil/foto/0,,15345660-EX,00.jpg http://www.patuca.blogger.com.br/Cosan-005.jpg

In the case of human evaluators of babies, not only our genetic proximity to the baby must be taken in consideration.

Human females pupils dilate (signal of attraction) when seeing a baby. Human male pupils will vary, with the case being that childless man are more likely to get a shrinkage, while fathers mostly have dilated pupils.

Sometimes it pays not to detect something, evolutionarily speaking, some levels of egoism are tolerated and forgotten to keep future altruism, for instance. Females are pro-babies in general probably because it would be too costly to find other babies neutral, or ugly. The male scenario is a bit different.

Also, we see babies all the time, so we should beware of Contrast Effect bias in favor of the bunny.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 22 February 2010 02:14:19AM *  4 points [-]

IAWYC, but I wonder how human-universal the cuteness response to bunnies is (constantly being told "these are cute!" might increase it in our culture). I also wonder how many animals look cute that would have been likely prey in the African EEA.

Comment author: Alicorn 22 February 2010 02:16:59AM *  2 points [-]

I'm not sure what all critters people ate in the African ancestral environment, but I'd be really, really surprised if none of them were cute, at least as juveniles. (Which are easier to catch than healthy adults.)

Comment author: Leafy 22 February 2010 01:47:49PM 3 points [-]

Is it not worth considering "cuteness" to be defined in terms of threat levels. It seems to me that in most cases there is a direct correlation between cuteness and perceived threat.

By threat I am referring not just to physical (claws versus soft paws, large vs small, dominant versus meek, hard versus soft) but even biological (messy / unhygenic looking creatures versus fluffy / cuddly looking ones) or social (flawed versus flawless).

This may explain why some people perceive cuteness differently. One person may look at a human baby and see no possible threat, others may be more inclined to be considering health implications or even the threat of embaressment / fear it is associated with.

With this association in mind it would seem that selection towards lower threat is prevalent - babies looking cute leads to lower abandonment or attack by other parties, animals allowed to come close to humans without fear and benefiting from shelter / food / care etc.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 22 February 2010 02:23:28PM 5 points [-]

This also might explain why some of us think that babies are cute, and others of us don't: Not that babies themselves are potentially dangerous, but that messing with someone else's baby is potentially dangerous, particularly if the baby belongs to someone who's not a tribemate. I suspect that finding a given baby cute correlates with how much we trust the baby's parents; in the case of strangers' babies, it would correlate with our priors regarding how dangerous it is to interact with strangers.

This doesn't explain why some stranger's babies register as cuter than others, though - perhaps that correlates with how much the babies look like people who we believe would trust us to interact with their babies?

Comment author: DanArmak 22 February 2010 01:59:48PM 3 points [-]

Cats are dangerous predators and many housecats scratch or bite humans in play, but they're still cute, often in the very moment of doing so. They can also appear cute when hunting real prey.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 22 February 2010 02:10:01PM 2 points [-]

Cats that are actually dangerous to us are generally not perceived as cute, though. Googling 'cute lion', for example, turns up primarily cubs, drawings of cubs, drawings of adults with cublike proportions (which look decidedly nonthreatening), or babies or pets dressed up to look like lions. The only picture of an actual adult lion on the first 5 pages that registers as even remotely cute is this one, and that stops registering as cute at all when I consider the chance that that lion could have mauled her.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 22 February 2010 03:55:29PM 2 points [-]

It can't just be harmlessness-- all sorts of things (like pencils) are harmless but not cute.

Comment author: Unnamed 22 February 2010 07:10:53AM *  4 points [-]

I believe that Konrad Lorenz was the first one to advance the evolutionary theory of cuteness. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article about it (pdf) using Mickey Mouse as an example (don't be dissuaded by the author's identity). Lorenz argued that we respond with awwwws and nurturing behavior to features that distinguish infant humans from adults, like large round heads, large eyes, small pudgy limbs, and clumsy movements, even if they belong to another animal or a nonliving thing.

There has been research on why animals are cute, again going back to Lorenz, and I think it's generally accepted that the young of many species are cute to us because they share cute-inducing features that are common to that developmental stage, some species (like pandas) seem cute just because out of the wide variety of species some of them happen to have cute-inducing features, and some species (like dogs) seem cute because humans have bred them that way. I'm not sure if there is research on whether adults of other species find their own young to be cute.

Human infants are unusually helpless for an unusually long period of time, which helps explain why humans are so attuned to cuteness (and why there would be a bias towards over-identifying instances of cuteness, which evolutionarily is the less costly error). That doesn't explain why bunnies are cuter than babies, though, or why non-humans dominate the top of our cutest list. Perhaps they just have more of the cute-inducing features. Humans occupy a small portion of body-space, and if you move from the region occupied by adult humans to the region occupied by human infants and then go even further along the same dimensions, you could run into regions occupied by other animals. But why would this happen for cuteness but not sexiness?

Comment author: wedrifid 22 February 2010 07:35:56AM *  5 points [-]

and some species (like dogs) seem cute because humans have bred them that way.

I have heard it said that in general dogs seem cute because they bred themselves to exploit us more so than us breeding them. Actual breeding came somewhat later on.

Comment author: Unnamed 22 February 2010 05:01:04PM 2 points [-]

You're right - I should've said "selected" instead of "bred" - they became cuter under selection pressure from humans.

Comment author: Unnamed 22 February 2010 08:07:10PM 3 points [-]

This is a rewrite of my comment as more of an argument and less links and speculation, since I think that parts of it might be clearer that way.

Lorenz's theory is that humans evolved to respond with an awwww to the features that distinguish infants from adults, and so we also awwww to other animals that have those features. Why do other species have features that we find cute? One reason is that we've exerted selection pressure on them - for instance, by being more friendly to cuter wolf/dogs. A second is that features common among mammal young naturally became features of human babies, so of course other baby animals have some cute-inducing features. A third is that features that differ between babies and adults also tend to differ between different species, and so there will be some species that have the baby-like version of those features or even a more extreme version. Babies are smaller than adults but some species are smaller; babies have small less-protruding noses but some species have smaller noses; babies have small limbs relative to their body but other species have smaller ones; babies are soft but some species are softer.

Bunny superiority may just be a result of there being enough species so that some will have a large enough collection of extreme cute-inducing features to be super-adorable. And since our ancestors don't seem to have wasted a ton of fitness on cute non-humans, they didn't undergo a strong evolutionary force to prevent the bunny takeover.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 22 February 2010 12:06:15PM *  4 points [-]

Hey, let's play a game! Pick any comment in this comment tree and reply to it with a picture you consider cuter than it. The markup is ![](http://www.blabla.com/picutre.jpg) . Please do not reply to yourself. One picture per post please.

I'll start with the first Google Images result for "cute":

Comment author: Kutta 24 February 2010 02:11:09PM *  8 points [-]

I'm appalled that Less Wrong came to have a "Post cute kittens" thread this soon. Still, I wouldn't call it an unfortunate turn of events.

Comment author: CronoDAS 25 February 2010 10:55:57PM 5 points [-]

As an Internet forum grows older, the probability of a thread devoted to posting pictures of cute kittens approaches one. ;)

Comment author: [deleted] 23 February 2010 12:26:21AM 4 points [-]

Comment author: CannibalSmith 23 February 2010 09:55:36AM 1 point [-]

Comment author: Kevin 23 February 2010 01:19:09PM 3 points [-]

Comment author: ciphergoth 23 February 2010 02:08:15PM 4 points [-]


Comment author: ata 23 February 2010 02:20:43PM 3 points [-]

Comment author: ata 23 February 2010 02:19:53PM 3 points [-]

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 February 2010 03:52:20AM 4 points [-]

1) The baby is far cuter than the rabbit.

2) There's nothing wrong with a stimulus having a superstimulus.

Comment author: Alicorn 22 February 2010 05:16:06AM 16 points [-]

Superstimuli are typically artificial. I don't have this problem with Dennett's explanation of the sweet tooth just because cake exists - the cake is explained. And I wouldn't be complaining about the cuteness explanation if the only thing cuter than the baby were an idealized drawing of a baby.

Comment author: Jack 22 February 2010 06:06:32AM 5 points [-]

Given 5000 species of mammals in the world that are guaranteed to have a number of facial features in common with humans and a number of developmental similarities, shouldn't some happen to super-stimulate our cuteness sense just by chance?

Comment author: DanArmak 22 February 2010 12:15:44PM *  6 points [-]

That looks like just the evo-psych kind of reasoning Alicorn is warning against.

Compare: given 5000 species of mammals that are guaranteed to have many physical features in common with humans, shouldn't some happen to super-stimulate our sexual attraction just by chance? Why would mating choice be that much more strongly selected than baby nurturing behavior?

ETA: some good explanations for this difference have been proposed in the comments below:

  1. Only mating choice is subject to sexual selection, which is a powerful force. (Eliezer)
  2. Animals aren't deliberately trying to appear cute. But other humans are always trying to appear sexy. Therefore our sexual choice heuristics evolved to better eliminate false positives. (Me)
Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 February 2010 08:10:28PM 8 points [-]

Actually, it makes perfect sense for sexual selection on sexual-attractiveness-features to be subject to far greater selection pressure and fine-tuning than baby-cuteness.

I'll make a testable prediction here: Cases of parental superstimulus (like baby ducks following a stick figure, infant monkeys getting attached to puppets, etc., if I'm remembering correctly) ought to be far more common / easier to fake than sexual superstimulus. I'll limit the key part of the prediction to complex vertebrates so that they have large enough brains to be complicated, but I wouldn't be surprised to find the rule more universal than that.

Comment author: Alicorn 22 February 2010 06:46:34AM 6 points [-]

Lots of them superstimulate compared to human babies. It doesn't seem very coincidental to me. There are even birds that are cuter than human babies.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 22 February 2010 07:33:42PM *  4 points [-]

I wouldn't use "superstimulus" to describe a bunny being merely cuter than a baby, but I would for a cuckoo too big for the nest, yet still being fed by the host. This is the result of an optimization process, though not an artificial one.

Comment author: Alicorn 22 February 2010 07:39:20PM 4 points [-]

It's in cuckoo interests to be attractive to host birds; it's not obviously serving non-domesticated animals to be cute. It hasn't historically stopped us from eating them at anywhere near the rates that would put that kind of pressure on.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 February 2010 08:15:27PM 2 points [-]

How does the same cuckoo manage to be attractive to so many host birds?

Comment author: Cyan 22 February 2010 09:27:45PM *  3 points [-]

Can't find the citation now, but at least some of the reason that host birds feed baby cuckoos is that parent cuckoos monitor how well their offspring are doing and will destroy the nests of birds that fail to feed the cuckoo chick. So there's selective pressure to respond to the cuckoo chick's stimulus without it necessarily being a superstimulus.

Comment author: billswift 22 February 2010 07:28:01AM 3 points [-]

Where do you get this - "Superstimuli are typically artificial"?

Comment author: wnoise 22 February 2010 08:16:09AM *  9 points [-]

Superstimuli are typically not found in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (or else the executions that latched on to them inappropriately would tend to decrease in frequency through the population). Although humans have spread to habitats outside Africa, the largest changes since then have been ones humans have made -- i.e. "artificial".

Comment author: Wei_Dai 22 February 2010 08:47:19AM *  6 points [-]

That is a reasonable explanation. (I don't know why you were downvoted, and voted you back up to 0.)

But theoretically, it's possible to have a superstimulus for cuteness that existed in our EEA, if the maladaptive behavior that would be triggered by it is more easily prevented by a cultural norm or another adaptation, instead of by tuning down our cuteness sense for it.

Comment author: Clippy 22 February 2010 12:05:21PM 11 points [-]

This is far cuter than all of them put together.

Comment author: Jack 23 February 2010 02:20:16AM *  6 points [-]

But how do you feel about these?

Comment author: Clippy 23 February 2010 02:39:12AM 3 points [-]

Those aren't nearly as cute. They have that ugly shape on them that doesn't contribute to paperclip functionality. You could clip that part off and make a second clip for each one of them, given all that they waste.

So, not so much "nurturing" behavior induced.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 February 2010 08:15:54PM 4 points [-]

What sort of nurturing behavior do you feel compelled to exhibit toward paperclips? Now I'm curious.

Comment author: Clippy 23 February 2010 01:25:22AM 6 points [-]

Well, I want to protect them and keep them in a safe place so that other processes in the universe don't convert them into ugly non-paperclip forms. Just looking at that thing makes me want to envelop it within the safe zone!

Comment author: knb 24 February 2010 02:25:08AM *  3 points [-]

So what is the alternative explanation for cuteness? Cuteness is a universal response that is very similar in all human beings. People all over the world find the same things cute. Did the phenomenon of cuteness just emerge, culturally, ex nihilo, and spread to every country in which the subject has been studied?

This universal human phenomenon must be explained somehow. The only explanation is that the phenomenon of cuteness is an evolved response.

And, I can't emphasize this enough, Dennett's hypothesis might have been idle speculation, but this issue has been thoroughly studied by psychologists and neouroscientists.



The theory of cuteness as evolved psychological adaptation is supported by mountains of empirical evidence, by reason, and by evolutionary theory.

My evolutionary psychology professor just discussed cuteness in some detail a few weeks ago. She was very convincing. I have absolutely no idea how you consider all of this to be "cheaply wrong".

Comment author: Alicorn 24 February 2010 02:26:25AM 5 points [-]

I'm sure there is an evolutionary explanation for cuteness. I just don't think it's this one.

Comment author: CronoDAS 22 February 2010 03:18:24AM 3 points [-]

Cats are cuter than bunnies.

Comment author: CannibalSmith 22 February 2010 11:52:14AM 1 point [-]

Catgirls are cuter than cats.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 February 2010 08:07:12PM 12 points [-]

Male tentacle monsters perceive Japanese schoolgirls as a superstimulus relative to female tentacle monsters. It probably has something to do with the tie on the sailor uniforms.

Comment author: CronoDAS 23 February 2010 04:20:10AM 4 points [-]

What does a female tentacle monster look like, anyway? And do they like human males?

Comment author: arundelo 22 February 2010 12:21:51PM 7 points [-]

I think that's a different meaning of "cute".

Comment author: Leonhart 22 February 2010 08:03:01PM 2 points [-]

Do you think the two meanings of cute are mutally exclusive? In me they're mutually reinforcing, at least some of the time.

Comment author: TuviaDulin 25 October 2012 08:47:25AM 2 points [-]

This may not be the best place to ask, but is Evolutionary Psychology actually falsifiable?

Comment author: MatthewB 23 February 2010 11:03:21AM 2 points [-]

I have a very adverse reaction to human babies... I want to pop them. Or something similar. They look like you could just stick a big pin in them and they'd go POP.

Bunnies are way cuter than human babies (at least to humans I think).

Comment author: zslastman 22 October 2012 05:27:15PM 1 point [-]

Why are we all assuming that finding animals cute represents an evolved trait and isn't, for instance, a freak consequence of all the books and cartoons we're exposed to which anthropomorphize animals? (No points for guessing the other candidate for that etiology).

Comment author: pelius 07 March 2010 12:12:10PM 1 point [-]

Psychological conditioning, rather than simple evolutionary instinct, is a major factor in our modern Western viewpoint concerning baby human vs. baby animal cuteness. We must consider the impact a century of books, cartoons, movies, and teddy bears has on our perception of this matter. This programming begins at infancy before we are even conscious of it, familiarizing and humanizing creatures that our ancestors not far back in time would have slaughtered, eaten, or killed for sport without guilt.

Comment author: wedrifid 22 February 2010 07:50:03AM 1 point [-]

I just search google images for 'cute baby' and 'cute bunny'. The only baby I saw that wasn't cuter than a bunny was one that was photoshopped to have rabbit teeth.

Comment author: Alicorn 24 February 2010 10:55:44PM 0 points [-]

Does anyone know how to contact this blogger so I can correct em on my gender?!

Comment author: CronoDAS 25 February 2010 07:39:50PM 4 points [-]

Wow, that's quite a discussion thread that's hanging below this comment; interesting, but completely unrelated to the top-level post. I want to jump in with a few words about anger but I'm completely at a loss as to where to put them.

Anyway, said blogger has now changed his post.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 February 2010 04:00:07AM 6 points [-]
Comment author: RobinZ 26 February 2010 04:09:22AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Kevin 26 February 2010 06:56:18AM 2 points [-]

Go go feminism police!

Comment author: Alicorn 26 February 2010 04:19:35AM 0 points [-]

Thank you!

Comment author: Wei_Dai 26 February 2010 10:02:50AM 1 point [-]

Why did Eliezer tell everyone here about another blogger who doesn't care enough about Alicorn to find out and use her preferred pronoun, instead of, say, just contacting that blogger directly? And why did people vote it up? Do they want to see more instances of such lack of caring to be reported here? I think I'm missing something here...

Comment author: ciphergoth 26 February 2010 10:34:11AM 5 points [-]

The blog post is of independent interest aside from the gender mixup.

Comment author: wedrifid 26 February 2010 10:10:03AM 3 points [-]

Do they want to see more instances of such lack of caring to be reported here? I think I'm missing something here...

I found the mere fact that a lesswrong post got that much external reference was interesting.

I don't think my personal vote should be taken as support of any 'lack of caring' about Alicorn, as that is not an inference I have made about the state of the mind of the blogger based on the evidence available. That is, I reject the framing of the question.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 26 February 2010 03:15:27PM 3 points [-]

I think I'm missing something here...

Er... a sense of humor? I regret only that I didn't get to see the look on her face in person, but I was kind of hoping for an AAAAAAAHHH in reply.

Comment author: Alicorn 26 February 2010 04:53:48PM 7 points [-]

Oh, I didn't realize my frustration was so entertaining. Should I stop exhibiting it, to create better incentives?

Comment author: ciphergoth 26 February 2010 06:28:36PM *  4 points [-]

While I generally get pissed off when people find my frustration entertaining, I'm not sure that's the correct inference here. I can be amused by my friends frustration in a way that, far from diminishing my sympathy for them, is actually borne of it. This is part of what amuses us about the Bill Hicks of this world.

Comment author: thomblake 26 February 2010 06:13:03PM 0 points [-]

Perhaps you should at least stop exhibiting it so amusingly. Lately it's sounded like something out of Peanuts.

Comment author: ciphergoth 26 February 2010 06:21:03PM *  8 points [-]

I think we should steer a lot further from high-school tropes. Right now you seem a whisker away from grabbing her stuff, offering it back to her, then throwing it to a mate when she reaches for it. I don't think that's exactly the atmosphere we're aiming for, do you?

Comment author: SilasBarta 26 February 2010 06:30:16PM *  2 points [-]

Agreed, and voted up.

With that said, note that the scienceblogs author and most of the commenters were female, and didn't make the inference, "alicorn = unicorn-related = probably female".

Comment author: Alicorn 26 February 2010 06:13:50PM 1 point [-]

What would be a clear, non-amusing, ideally empathy-inspiring expression of frustration?

Comment author: Kevin 27 February 2010 03:53:34AM 2 points [-]

A :( probably wouldn't hurt

Comment author: Alicorn 27 February 2010 03:54:29AM *  10 points [-]

People keep mistaking my gender and it makes me sad :(

Comment author: JoshuaZ 12 March 2011 04:05:34PM 8 points [-]

I'm a little curious why you care so much about people getting your gender correct online.

Speaking personally, I generally use my actual name in my screen name which to native English speakers shows my gender clearly. But even then, some non-native speakers see a name ending in "a" and apparently conclude that that's female.

Also, I have a very high-pitch voice for a male, so I regularly get mistaken for a female over the phone. But this isn't really that annoying except when it becomes an actual inconvenience (as in "I'm sorry ma'am, but I need to speak to your husband about this." and then refusing to believe that they really are speaking to Joshua Zelinsky).

So I'm curious why this preference issue is one that you place so much emphasis on.

Comment author: Dufaer 01 March 2010 10:01:48PM 6 points [-]

How is it even reasonable to expect some arbitrarily visitor to notice (or guess correctly) your gender?

Do you evaluate your writing style or your expressed thoughts to be so typically female as to yield to no other conclusion? Or do you count on the “obvious” connotations of a name like “Alicorn” - for it is surely obvious that anyone naming oneself thus must be thinking about some fluffy, girly sparkling unicorn instead of, for example, making a reference to the Invisible Pink Unicorn - or something (especially on a rationality website!).

There is no personal information on the user pages here on LS, and decidedly no gender marks on top of the posts themselves. Also, you are obviously not willing to provide any info to make you identifiable in RL and yet expect all people to infer that you are female anyway, even given the prior probability distribution (“there are no girls on the internet”, “a contributor on some intellectual/academia website”)?

Even when one does not think of people on the internet strictly as male, it is simply usually a better guess to refer to them as “he”, given that i) one is unwilling to use “he/she” or a similarly artificial form, and ii) there is no other information one is willing to look up.

Thus I conclude that as long as you do not change your nickname into something like “Alicorn(female!)” or change your expectations, you will be sad like this time and time again. [ :( ]

Comment author: Raemon 14 March 2011 01:49:16AM *  1 point [-]

I think it's an unfortunate but inescapable fact that people are unlikely to assume a given poster on a rationality site is female unless said poster has an obviously-female-name (and honestly, I don't think "Alicorn" counts. I had no idea what it meant until you explained).

But I AM genuinely offended by the Isgoria blogger proclaiming that male pronouns were "neutral", even when applied to a specific person. I'm not sure it was the optimal use of my time given the year old status of this discussion, but I sent an e-mail saying so. It gave me warm fuzzies, at least.

I think the male bias in the english language is a ridiculously obvious problem, and I am extremely frustrated whenever a someone says "hey, it'd be cool if you made a small effort to use gender neutral language" and the response is "dude, what's YOUR problem?"

(Originally I used male pronouns to refer to the Isgoria blogger, then realized I didn't actually know for sure. I'm 90% sure the blogger is male, and I don't think it's necessarily wrong to guess someone's gender wrong. But it also didn't take much effort to avoid the use of pronouns in the first place, and if we had an official actually neutral pronoun it wouldn't have been an issue.)

Comment author: Rain 25 February 2010 04:56:23PM *  7 points [-]

Edit: this comment has been rewritten; please see wnoise's comment below for original context.

I feel that the topic of gender identity is not as important as this discussion and others like it on LW seem to make it. In a text based environment, using pseudonyms, we are genderless until we reveal ourselves. And unless we intend to employ mating signals between posters here, it has little relevance even after it has been revealed.

I have operated for years in communities where the gender of participants is highly relevant, but where there were taboos against attempts to discover true genders (online, text-based roleplaying). In such environments, I've developed a severe lack of concern for the topic at large, and instead read what the person has to say and contribute without a gender filter. Many times, I don't even read the name of a poster except as a pattern that allows me to place the comment in context with those around it.

Alicorn's focus on gender identity has, several times now, generated very large discussion threads and at least one top level post. I do not understand why this is accepted by the rest of the LW community as important and relevant to the topic of rationality.

Comment author: Kevin 25 February 2010 06:02:52PM *  10 points [-]

It's because we want more women to post here so we need to listen to Alicorn and keep her happy!!! We respect her opinions. Diversity is good. If we can't keep Alicorn happy, we're generally screwed as far as attracting (and subsequently not alienating) more women to this site.

See Eliezer's post on this topic. http://lesswrong.com/lw/13j/of_exclusionary_speech_and_gender_politics/

Comment author: komponisto 25 February 2010 06:08:12PM 5 points [-]

Alicorn's focus on gender identity

I don't perceive Alicorn as "focusing" on "gender identity". I perceive Alicorn as getting annoyed when people (out of carelessness) get her gender identity wrong.

Comment author: Rain 25 February 2010 06:14:52PM *  11 points [-]

Annoyance is one thing, and I have no problem with it; expressing that annoyance in such a way as to fuel a 118 post thread (and growing) on the topic in an otherwise unrelated article is what I disagree with.

Comment author: [deleted] 23 October 2012 08:26:44PM 1 point [-]

Surely if the thread's grown unwieldy, that's not simply because Alicorn expressed her annoyance? There's a whole bunch of other people involved here, whose contribution matters even if it all stems off of one of her comments.

Comment author: Rain 25 February 2010 05:13:57PM 3 points [-]

If you downvoted this comment, please explain why you feel that the topic of gender identity is so important as to merit top level posts and long discussions in many other posts.

Comment author: wnoise 25 February 2010 05:29:12PM 2 points [-]

I have not downvoted it. But the original phrasing "You are too focused on the topic of gender identity; I suggest that the topic is not nearly so worthy of concern." differs from the one here in that it suggests concern to oneself, rather than the concern to the community that this post makes clear. The first is telling other people what they should be concerned with, violating a clear norm, and helping no one.

Comment author: brazil84 25 February 2010 05:50:32PM 2 points [-]

I didn't downvote your comment; I think you actually make an interesting point.

For me, it's not just that people obsess over issues of gender (and race, and sexual preference). It's that their gender (or race) sometimes becomes like the team they are on and (arguably) warps their views.

For example, let's suppose you did a poll and asked people if they think women should have the right to vote. I'm pretty confident that the percentage which says "yes" would be higher among women than among men. So it seems likely that peoples' group membership colors their judgments.

Comment author: thomblake 25 February 2010 05:59:04PM *  0 points [-]

Alicorn's focus on gender identity has, several times now, generated very large discussion threads and at least one top level post. I do not understand why this is accepted by the rest of the LW community as important and relevant to the topic of rationality.

Questions of appropriate standards for our community are on-topic to a limited extent. If you disagree, please refrain from making comments like this one, on pain of contradiction.

Comment author: Rain 25 February 2010 06:33:40PM *  3 points [-]

As pointed out by Kevin, this discussion has been had several times before on LW, and community norms should have already been established, in which case continued large threads on the topic are likely unproductive.

I also do not see why contradiction should be painful.

Comment author: wedrifid 24 February 2010 11:15:56PM 1 point [-]

How on earth did he get 'he' from 'Alicorn'?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 February 2010 02:28:26AM *  8 points [-]

I've gotten 'she' from 'Eliezer Yudkowsky' no less.

Interestingly, over the course of some time monitoring blog trackbacks for Overcoming Bias, I never saw Robin Hanson mistaken for a female Robin.

So... um... I realize that this isn't really what the whole point is about at all, but I didn't feel particularly insulted to be called a girl; what does it say about your opinion of men that you're insulted to be mistaken for male? :)

(And yes, I know, it probably wouldn't be annoying if it was only happening to you personally and no one else, it's the background social assumptions that are annoying.)

Comment author: Sniffnoy 25 February 2010 07:52:06AM 8 points [-]

I automatically assumed Yvain was female for a while, because the name looks like "Yvonne".

Comment author: RichardKennaway 25 February 2010 08:54:20AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: [deleted] 25 February 2010 04:48:06AM *  4 points [-]

Am I mistaken for female on here because of my username often, I wonder. It does look like it has the word "gal" embedded in it. Darn orthography not reflecting pronunciation.

(The pronunciation is /ˈwɔrɨɡl̩/ in IPA, uorygl in Lojban. Also, it took me ages to figure out a way to get the word "female" within five words of the beginning of that sentence.)

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 March 2011 12:58:19PM 2 points [-]

It's easy for me to see your name as Warriorgal.

Comment author: mattnewport 25 February 2010 02:29:02AM 2 points [-]

Is that from someone reading it as 'Eliza'?

Comment author: Alicorn 25 February 2010 03:42:12AM *  1 point [-]

It says nothing about my opinion of men (I think) - it just signifies to me that the person so profoundly does not even care. I don't want to be talked about without being considered. This is probably more of a pet peeve for me than for others. It would still be annoying even if it never happened to anyone else.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 25 February 2010 09:17:56AM 9 points [-]

It says nothing about my opinion of men (I think) - it just signifies to me that the person so profoundly does not even care.

It also signifies that you care a lot, more than is normally expected, and so more than people normally adjust their behavior to accommodate.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 25 February 2010 01:17:33PM *  8 points [-]

What did the person who mistook me for a woman not care about with respect to me? What were they not considering about me that constitutes disrespect to me? If it's not an annoying social background assumption then I genuinely don't understand what's so terrible about this.

Comment author: RobinZ 25 February 2010 01:24:54PM *  3 points [-]

Do you remember whoever-it-was that was talking about not having the kind of attachment to sexual identity that other people claimed? (She - I believe it was she - mentioned that she would be more likely to report but not as emotionally traumatized by rape.)

I think this is an inverse of this. Some people - me, for example - are unperturbed by being assigned the wrong gender. Not everyone.

Comment author: arundelo 25 February 2010 02:12:26PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: wedrifid 25 February 2010 09:28:28AM *  5 points [-]

it just signifies to me that the person so profoundly does not even care.

About gender pronouns, your gender, gender politics in general or something more esoteric?

Comment author: Alicorn 25 February 2010 06:04:20PM *  1 point [-]

About me.

In person, I'm fairly obviously girl-shaped. No one has ever made this mistake when interacting with me in person, and I don't have to do Obvious Girl Things™ to get that accuracy - don't have to swish around in crinoline, don't have to conveniently quote third parties who refer to me as "she", don't have to carry my purse everywhere I go, or even say my name (which is a girls' name). People don't assume based on where I am or what I'm doing or how surprising it would be for me to be a girl before they figure out that I am one anyway and pronoun me accordingly.

And - in person, when people can't tell what gender someone is, they don't guess, unless they feel able to rely on visual cues or maybe being married to someone of a known gender (and when they are wrong they are mortified). People will bend over backwards to avoid using the wrong pronoun for someone who's in the room with them. They'll ask third parties or construct their sentences to avoid making the assumption or learn the person's name to get a clue. It's just not socially acceptable to get it wrong.

Online, people feel free to guess, and on the geeky parts of the Internet I frequent this is most likely to affect women negatively. (I also frequent various anti-prejudice parts of the Internet, but there a) I generally lurk and b) under the circumstances they take the trouble to be careful about that sort of thing!)

Now, I recognize this disparity is because it's considered insulting to say that someone looks like the opposite gender, and not so with writing like the opposite gender... except that when people talk about third parties one of them knows in person and the other doesn't, the one who doesn't know doesn't casually hurl pronoun caution to the wind even though someone is right there to correct them should they be wrong without any implications about anyone's looks having been made. When there is a mechanism to find out a real person's gender, it gets taken advantage of. With real people, you don't guess, you find out, and if you're wrong, that's not okay.

Getting my gender wrong when it would have been pretty easy to get it right (for crying out loud, ask me! Or someone else! Or do the most cursory of searches for "alicorn gender" on this very site - it's in the second result!) signifies that I am not a "real person" in the above sense. It's okay to guess. It doesn't matter if you get it wrong. He won't care, and if she does, it's about eir politics or something dismissible like that, not about whether you took four seconds to fact-check. Not about identity, or consideration, or the fact that this happens about once a week and the blogger, unlike most people who make the mistake, doesn't even have a way for me to correct em.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 26 February 2010 01:49:53AM 10 points [-]

It seems somewhat unreasonable to get so upset over the fact that a random person on the Internet doesn't care about you. I wonder what you think about this quote from my post The Nature of Offense:

On the other side of this interaction, we should consider the possibility that our offensiveness sense may be tuned too sensitively, perhaps for an ancestral environment where mass media didn’t exist and any offense might reasonably be considered both personal and intentional.

But I admit that I'm still quite confused about the proper relationship between rationality, values, and emotions. "Too sensitively" above makes some sense to me intuitively, but if someone asks "too sensitive compared to what?" then I can't really give an answer. I'd be interested in any insights you (or anyone else) might have.

Comment author: Alicorn 26 February 2010 02:09:00AM 1 point [-]

I wouldn't mind if the person had chosen not to blog about me at all. But having made the choice to a) blog about my article and b) couch this entry in terms of what puzzles me, etc., not checking up on my gender places the entire thing in a sort of uncanny valley of care. The blogger basically tried to order up my content a la carte, and there is a limit to how modular my contents are.

Comment author: Unknowns 26 February 2010 10:24:48AM 6 points [-]

I tend to agree with Wei Dai, and it seems to me that your analogy between the way people behave on the internet and the way people behave in person is flawed. To illustrate this:

The internet behavior in question: the blogger didn't care enough about you to find out your gender, but did care enough about what you said to comment on it, also not realizing that you would read the blog post.

Real world behavior that would be actually analogous: two men (more likely to be uncaring) are walking down a street in a large city. Two other persons pass them, walking in the other direction and speaking with one another. The two men overhear something, but it is difficult for them to be sure of the gender of the two persons. Then, one of the two men comments to the other on what they overheard. He uses whatever gender pronoun seems to him slightly more likely, even while knowing that there is a good chance he is wrong, and he doesn't care.

Note the real analogy here: the two men don't care about the two persons they pass, but are interested in what they overhear, and so say something about it. They have no reason to expect that the persons will hear what they say, so, in their view, it doesn't matter whether they are right or not.

Of course, people may well underestimate the probability that other people will read blog posts about them, so maybe they should be more careful.

Comment author: wedrifid 26 February 2010 10:35:45AM 3 points [-]

I tend to agree with Wei Dai, and it seems to me that your analogy between the way people behave on the internet and the way people behave in person is flawed.

The other difference when calling a 'she' a he' in real life is: If you can actually see her with your eyes and you call her a 'he' then it probably means you haven't noticed her breasts, don't consider her facial features to be differentiated and don't even have a polite, respectful appreciation for her feminine form. That makes the situation extremely embarrassing for both parties.

Comment author: Bindbreaker 24 February 2010 11:26:14PM *  3 points [-]

The user name "Alicorn" seems gender-indeterminate to me.

Comment author: Unknowns 25 February 2010 07:22:54AM 5 points [-]

Maybe, but I certainly assumed she was female the first time I heard the name, and I had never heard it before... maybe associations with Alice or Allison or whatever. Anyway it sure seems determinately female to me.

Comment author: Kevin 25 February 2010 05:17:41AM 5 points [-]

I assume that is without knowing that the word "alicorn" is related to unicorns? Or are you not confident enough in females liking unicorns much more so than males to be able to give a probability estimate?

When I once wasn't sure about Alicorn's gender, I googled "alicorn", saw alicorn was a word related to unicorns and assigned a 95% probability then that Alicorn was female, which was confirmed by seeing someone refer to her as she on here.

Comment author: Blueberry 25 February 2010 07:00:02AM 4 points [-]

That's a 95% female probability, even accounting for the fact that LW is mostly male? You're amazingly confident that female persons like unicorns much more, considering that unicorns have a huge sharp pointy phallic weapon sticking out of their foreheads.

Comment author: mattnewport 25 February 2010 07:07:43AM 9 points [-]

That's 95% confidence that the username would be picked by a female. Not at all the same thing as a 95% confidence that a person who likes unicorns is female. You are ignoring the fact that picking such a username is a powerful signal (to people who know what it means). I think unicorns are kind of cool but that doesn't mean I would pick a username that references unicorns.

Comment author: wedrifid 25 February 2010 09:41:52AM 5 points [-]

You're amazingly confident that female persons like unicorns much more, considering that unicorns have a huge sharp pointy phallic weapon sticking out of their foreheads.

I sold my unicorn when I realized why the guys would never believe my locker-room stories of sexual conquest.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 13 March 2011 11:36:43AM 2 points [-]

Alicorn ends with a consonant. This doesn't guarantee that it will be seen as male, but I think it increases the odds.

Comment author: V_V 23 October 2012 09:26:25PM 1 point [-]

How in the earth did you get 'he' from 'Sharon'?

Comment author: wedrifid 24 October 2012 01:25:48AM 2 points [-]

How in the earth did you get 'he' from 'Sharon'?

I have no idea how the Wedrifid from nearly three years ago selected 'he'. It doesn't seem the kind of detail one would encode indefinitely in long term memory.