Mother’s Day Food for Thought: The “Aw Phenomenon”

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Why are humans suckers for puppies? What makes us go all gooey when we see babies? In The Other End of the Leash, new this month in the store, Patricia McConnell says that puppies, babies, and other animals that depend on adults for survival have anatomical features that elicit caretaking from adults. These features, McConnell says, call forth a reaction that is so hardwired and universal that psychologists have dubbed it the “aw phenomenon.”

Two puppies

“This response isn’t foolish, and it isn’t trivial; it’s biologically important. If adults don’t respond to those signals, then they’re not going to be very successful parents. And if they’re not successful parents, then they’re not going to pass on many of their own genes. Thus, natural selection has created a species that goes all gooey when we see babies and baby-like features. After all, if two-year-olds didn’t look as exquisitely darling as they do, how many of them would make it to three? Any youngster who demands as much of a parent as a young ape does, whether human or chimp, had better be armed with some pretty effective artillery, because he’s going to need something to keep his long-suffering parents engaged throughout those many years of development.”

McConnell says that it’s not just humans; other species are also under the thrall of baby-like features. Do you remember the story of Koko the gorilla who adopted and nurtured a little kitten? McConnell even cites examples of songbirds that swoop down and stuff food into the mouths of gaping fish instead of their own young.

So what happens when the puppy grows up and loses its “cute factor?” When that chubby-cheeked baby becomes a difficult teenager? Whether your children have two legs or four, it takes a dedicated caretaker to persevere even when the “aw phenomenon” has faded away.

Happy Mother’s Day!