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Mickey Mouse, Foxes to Dogs, why are some things cute and some things not

This is the first of a 2-part series on "What appears cute to us, and what doesn't?"

Evolution of Mickey.jpg

Ever wondered why Mickey Mouse is so popular after so many generations?

First of all, it's a mouse. Most of the time, people are freaked out by mice! So how is it possible that a mouse can be so popular as a cartoon character? Even as our taste in music, fashion, movies, and entertainment change, why does Mickey Mouse remain popular generation after generation? 


Second and interesting enough, Mickey Mouse hasn't always been the same. Take a look at the picture above.


Mickey started off as some creepy, emaciated character on the extreme left, called Steamboat Willie (which really does resemble a mouse, as opposed to Mickey today - more on that later). And you can already see how drastic these changes are. You can't imagine Steamboat Willie becoming a beloved cartoon character and the face of Disney. 

So what changed between Steamboat Willie and Mickey Mouse, that made Mickey so popular? And why is this even important? Don't we have better things to discuss than a cartoon character?


It turns out that the answers to both questions are linked; it has to do with ancient wiring in our brain that all of us share. Mor importantly, it shows how once we understand the wiring in our brains, it becomes easy to influence others' decisions without people even realising it, shaping what they like or dislike. 

So what's the deal with Mickey? For this, we turn to Dr Stephen Jay Gould, one of the most influential and widely cited evolutionary biologist and palaeontologist.


Gould argued that Mickey became popular due to progressive juvenilisation - or is termed "neotony"

What is neotony? Unlike most of us who grow old with age, Mickey grew younger and younger, each version of him resembling more and more like a human baby.  Gould explains that: 

||   “A newborn child possesses a relatively large head attached to a medium‐sized body with diminutive legs and feet. Human eyes appear huge in the baby and relatively smaller as the child grows. The baby has a small chin and bulbous cranium that give way to a more slanted, lower‐browed head and a heavier, more pronounced jaw. Mickey Mouse had just the reverse evolution. It became more baby-like as it grew older"

Gould even went to measure this. Over time, the length of Mickey's eyes compared to the length of its head increased from 27% to 42%; Mickey's head to body ratio increased from 42.7% to 48.1%. And the cranial vault size, the size of its skill increased from 71.7% to 95.6% 

And it turns out this isn't unique to Mickey. Ethologists have long observed that there are certain animals we find "cute", and others repulsive. Hal Herzog, emeritus professor at West Carolina University's Department of Psychology, even wrote a book - "Some we love, some we hate, some we eat" - about this. 

Physical characteristics like big eyes and soft features evoke our parental instincts, wired in us to keep the human race living on. Animals that share similar features to human babies naturally become popular. Seeing a cute puppy or a panda makes flood our brains with feel-good neurotransmitters, making us happy. You can try this for yourself. If you're having a bad day, google baby llama or cute kittens, and you'll very likely feel better.  


Cultural factors also come into play. The furry soft-toys we are used to means that we generally don't find bears or lions repulsive, even though they are dangerous. In contrasts, lizards and salamanders, largely harmless to us, are seen as dangerous, ugly, and disgusting. 

In contrast to beloved characters like Mickey, villains in cartoons tend towards the opposite in appearance. they look more and more like adults. Consider Mortimer, Mickey's nemesis - Mortimer has a smaller head to body ratio and generally looks much more adult. Think back as well on the villains in your favourite anime, cartoon series, or comics - the majority of them look much more adult in nature. 


Whether they meant it or not, Disney struck on exactly the right formula, which plays to our biological wiring, making Mickey Mouse such a successful character. But Disney isn't the only company that takes advantage of this. Ever notice how Mini Coopers have been designed?



Large, rounded headlights, a more rounded instead of straight edges, and you start seeing the resemblance to baby's face. And we have all sorts of other examples which have earned huge sums of consumer dollars - Hello Kitty, Pokemon, Totoro, Spongebob Square Pants.


In his book Alchemy, Rory Sutherland, the vice-chairman of Ogilvy shared and experience with a client, an energy company. The company ran a lucky draw where customers can win different prizes.  

||||   67,000 entries entered the draw to win free energy for one year, worth on average over £1,000. The draw to win a cute penguin nightlight with a value of £15? It received over 360,000 entries. One customer even turned down an offer of a £200 refund on their bill, saying, "No, I’d rather have a penguin."


Companies have never been shy to exploit our biology, which is why it's pretty useful to know what we might otherwise subconsciously fall for. 

In this piece, we explore how humans have innate wiring towards what is cute and what isn't. And it is possible to design products and characters that are more appealing based on this wiring. In part 2, we examine something even more remarkable - nature also understands and change based on this wiring

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