Host James Corden had a surprise for his audience at last month’s Grammy awards.
Normally, nominees who don’t win must mask their disappointment with fixed smiles as cameras circle. But this year, for those in one category, the smiles were real. Although comedians Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman and Jim Gaffigan lost to Dave Chapelle in the Comedy Album category, they received consolation prizes from Corden: warm, squirming puppies.
This turn of events made many viewers frown. Some worried Corden was serious when he said the comedians could take the puppies home. Living creatures should not be handed out to unsuspected prize winners (or losers) like swag bags, they protested.
“Dog ownership is a life-changing commitment, not something that should simply be done on a whim,” British Veterinary Association President John Fishwick told Sky News. Others were concerned the puppies had been frightened by the lights and crowd. (A CBS representative later revealed that the pups were returned to their actual owners that night; whether attending the Grammys caused them any distress remains unknown.)
But you know who wasn’t unhappy? Everyone who got a puppy.
Holding his, Jerry Seinfeld looked as happy as it is physically possible for a human to look. Admit it, you would have, too. I challenge anyone to be unhappy while holding a months-old, fat-pawed, sleepy-faced puppy. Among my own happiest memories is a visit I took with my brother to a farm in northern Scotland nearly 20 years ago. I was cold and wet and couldn’t understand anything anyone was saying to me, but when the farmer opened a wooden coop and pulled out five border collie puppies, which he piled into my arms like the world’s softest kindling, I thought I might actually melt from the warmth of pure joy.
I was a PhD student in psychology at the time, and the experience furthered my interest in understanding the basis of human care and compassion — topics that remain the focus of my research at Georgetown University today.
Puppies so reliably bring immediate joy that universities subsidize puppy days for stressed-out students during exams. Animal shelters arrange “puppy therapy” visits for office workers. It’s all very strange when you think about it. Puppies are messy. They pee everywhere. They are the progeny of carnivores who bite and attack millions of people every year (and whose ancestors once preyed on us). So why would mere contact with them be a source of such universal delight that the half of Twitter not lambasting Corden for insensitive treatment was wishing for consolation puppies of their own?
One of the answers: alloparenting.
Alloparenting means “other parenting.” As I discuss in my recent book, “The Fear Factor,” humans, like all mammals, are neurologically equipped to find our own babies adorable and to want to love and care for them. But we don’t stop there. We adore and care for babies in general. Scientists believe that human babies are so vulnerable and needy that our species would never had survived unless every adult member of a human troop was willing help take care of them. So we alloparent. Across every human culture in the world — and unlike most other animals — we care for babies other than our own. We cradle, cuddle, carry, feed, entertain, clean and protect our nieces, nephews, grandchildren, neighbors, even the occasional stranger’s baby.
Nature makes sure we are willing to overlook the many difficulties, inconveniences and occasional disgusting emissions that babies present by suffusing us with pleasure when we touch or smell or see a baby. Such contact causes the release of a hormone called oxytocin, which triggers the release of chemicals like dopamine and endorphins in the nucleus accumbens, a hub of pleasure and motivation in the brain. Rodent studies show that adults’ interest in caring for unfamiliar babies can be reliably predicted by the number of oxytocin receptors in their nucleus accumbens. Shut these receptors down, and interest in the little strangers disappears.
Humans’ oxytocin-soaked brains are so attuned to the pleasing features of babies — small body size, a large head, large eyes and a round appearance — that we yearn to care for nearly anything that shares similar features. So we cuddle puppies and raptly follow the antics of newborn zoo animals around the world, like an adorable preemie hippo named Fiona.
Dogs and other domestic animals are particularly good at switching on our alloparental circuitry — because we made them that way. According to the domestication hypothesis, our ancient ancestors selected the most docile and least aggressive wild dogs and cows and rabbits to breed, which produced generations of evermore docile and easily trained offspring. But something funny happens genetically when animals are bred for docility. Their appearance starts to change as well.
A famous experiment in Russia demonstrated that wild foxes bred purely for docility develop floppy ears, short faces and curly tails as the generations pass. They start to look and act more like puppies — even as adults — just as modern domestic dogs look more like puppies than their wolf brethren. In creating docile animals that enjoy our company, we ended up with creatures whose endearing features make us ever more eager to care for them, in a wonderfully symbiotic cycle.
The fact that our dogs’ very appearances trigger our innate desire to care for them is a key reason so many people keep them as pets. Many efforts have been made to identify pragmatic justifications for pet ownership, like a widely publicized 2017 Swedish study that claimed pet owners experience lower rates of heart disease. This study showed only a correlation, however; other studies have failed to find that pets bring any concrete health benefits.
We might as well enjoy our urge, as long we supplement it with common sense. Puppies probably don’t belong at award ceremonies, and it’s best that the comedians couldn’t take them home.
Not to worry, though. Seinfeld, Silverman and Gaffigan all succumbed to their alloparental urges long ago and could look forward to dogs of their own waiting for them, tails wagging, when they returned home from those Grammys.
Abigail Marsh is an associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Georgetown University and author of “The Fear Factor: How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths, and Everyone In-between.”