The Politically Subversive Power of Puppies

There’s a psychological reason that people like to tweet pictures of cute animals with their political opinions.

A puppy with its tongue out lies on a blanket.
Max Whittaker / Reuters

On the eve of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, Brian Truebe, better known by his Twitter handle @EmergencyPuppy, tweeted a photo of a fluffy beagle clutching a leash in its mouth. For years, Truebe had posted heart-melting photos of bright-eyed dachshunds and soft-fur labs, garnering more than 500,000 followers. But after Trump was elected, the concept took a sharp turn.

The image of the soft-eyed beagle pup came with a classic anarchist refrain: “No Gods, No Masters.”

It’s difficult to scroll through Facebook without coming across at least one video of a cat, and Twitter is rife with accounts dedicated to images of “doggos” and “puppers.” But in addition to light-hearted entertainment, many purveyors of cute-animal pics have political ideologies they want to share. During Brexit, people in the “Remain” camp posted images of their cats and dogs along with their concerns towards the opposition and the hashtags #CatsAgainstBrexits or #Mutts4Remain. Supporters of the alt-right have paired their messages with Matt Furie’s bug-eyed cartoon character “Pepe the Frog”—who’s more comical than cute, but still a disarming face alongside white-supremacist sentiments.

This habit of tag-teaming political messages with the softening blow of animal imagery has only increased across social-media platforms as Trump took office. And while it’s difficult to measure their impact, there’s a cognitive explanation behind their appeal: Cute animals might actually make people more receptive to politicized messages.

@EmergencyPuppy started back in 2011, when Truebe was working at Twitter in its Trust and Safety department. The account gained almost instant fame, but catering to the feel-good appetites of hundreds of thousands of followers burnt out the 30-year-old San Franciscan after a few years. Leading up to the election, Truebe barely tweeted through the account.

That changed after Trump won. Truebe was outraged at the results; suddenly, he yearned to provide subscribers with more than just an emotional jumpstart via adorable canines. This Twitter account, he realized, could become a platform to express his distaste for the new president. “A couple of days before inauguration day, I started attaching a cute puppy to the tweet text. ‘Think about this quote, look at this puppy,’” Truebe explains. “And it sort of married the virality of the cute content with the quote.”

In a matter of weeks, Truebe’s new approach earned him 100,000 more followers. He sourced his quotes from a wide spectrum of political figures to cross party lines, including Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan. The latter: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It must be fought for, and handed on to our children for them to do the same.” And John F. Kennedy:  “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”

The messages have been retweeted, favorited, or responded to by thousands of Twitter users. “You are keeping me sane with these posts,” the Twitter user @jnetherland replied to the beagle picture. “Keep up the good work!”

According to Kit Yarrow, a professor of consumer psychology at Golden Gate University, Truebe’s strategy is appealing because the cute imagery subconsciously lowers people’s psychological defenses. “If you come at people with aggression, they feel like they need to defend themselves,” Yarrow says. That’s why, for example, consistently sharing hyper-partisan news articles with all-caps commentary on your social media feed can backfire. But when people see cute animals paired with political messages, “we not only let our guard down, but we actually open up our hearts and become more receptive when faced with cuteness,” she says.

A number of papers published the past decade have reported that humans are indeed hardwired to respond in a socially positive manner to the wide eyes and large foreheads shared among newborn animals, also known as “baby schema.” In a 2012 study, Japanese researchers primed subjects with images of baby animals or sumptuous food before they played the game Operation; similarly, in another experiment, they looked at the effects of baby animals on subjects’ attention to fine-grained versus big-picture details (i.e. whether the subjects saw the letter “H” or “F” in an image of an “H” made ups of smaller “F’s”).

In both cases, the researchers found that subjects who were primed with baby-animal photos performed better or were more focused. This led the authors to conclude that cuteness enhances people’s attention and abilities to focus on localized details, even in situations where they’re not emotionally involved with or responsible for a helpless pup.

Oriana Aragón, a professor of marketing at Clemson University whose research focuses on cuteness and emotion, agrees with Yarrow and the Japanese researchers that cute imagery causes viewers to focus their attention on the task at hand—in the case of Truebe’s tweets, the 140 characters of political theory. But in addition to boosting people’s attention, Aragón believes pairing pups with politics is effective because “coming from such a simple and naïve spokesperson, a message can be so much more powerful.” In other words, even if you hear people say “let’s end war” all the time, you still might suddenly have a light-bulb moment by seeing the sentiment in a baby animal’s speech bubble due to its innocence.

“[It’s not that] the puppy is mystically wise, but rather that the message is so simple,” Aragón adds.

Beyond drawing new people into political movements, cute animal videos might also sustain those internet users already involved. According to Jessica Myrick, a professor of communication science at Indiana University, Grumpy Cat (and her canine-equivalents) can help advocates for various political causes—liberal or conservative—maintain their psychological endurance. In a 2015 study, Myrick found that people who watched videos or looked at pictures of cats felt happier and less anxious. She believes if people find themselves drained by attending political rallies or writing daily op-eds, a few minutes watching Keyboard Cat can, in fact, help people recharge and press forward in their mission.

“When you’re in a positive mood or positive emotions, you have more mental or psychological resources and go out there—even to accept self-threatening information,” Myrick said. “If we already feel good, then it’ll be easier to tackle negative situations.” So, whether they realized it or not, the social media directors of zoos that participated in the #CuteAnimalTweetOff this past January may have done more than just showcase their residents’ winning features.

Since Election Day, @EmergencyPuppy has continued its daily puppy-plus-politics routine (occasionally delving into posting photos of kittens and lambs). Truebe admits he’s worried that, in the long-run, the effect of the political message will weaken and people will just end up “amusing [themselves] to death.” But, at the moment, he has no plans to change his pup-and-switch strategy. “This struggle isn’t going to be solved by internet activism, but it will be organized by internet activism,” Truebe believes. “That’s where discussion happens.”