Have you ever looked at a tiny animal and thought it’s so cute, I could just squish it! Perhaps you have heard a parent tell their chubby baby, I just want to eat you up! Maybe you’ve even uttered a similar phrase yourself or felt your heart skip a beat when reading Where the Wild Things Are.
It isn’t exactly unusual to express a desire to squish, eat, nibble, and/or squeeze cute things. In fact, scientists have given this phenomenon a name.
“Cute aggression” is “the urge people get to squeeze or bite cute things, albeit without desire to cause harm.” About half of all adults sometimes experience this phenomenon, according to Katherine Stavropoulos, a psychologist from the University of California, Riverside.
Cute aggression was first outlined by Yale University researchers in 2014. Last month, Stavropoulos published an article in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience detailing what exactly the phenomenon looks like in the brain.
Thankfully, “when people feel this way, it’s with no desire to cause harm,” Stavropoulos says. It is simply an involuntary response to an overwhelmingly positive emotion.
“This is weird; I’m probably the only one who feels this way. I don’t want to hurt it. I just want to eat it.”
With the help of colleague Laura Alba, Stavropoulos recorded electrical brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) of 54 study participants (34 females and 20 males between 18 and 40 years old). The participants looked at images of animals and people divided into four groups: cute babies, less cute babies, cute (baby) animals, and less cute (adult) animals. Some images were manipulated by researchers to look less attractive while others were made more adorable, i.e. “big cheeks, big eyes, small noses — all these features we associate with cuteness,” according to Stavropoulos.
Participants viewed the images in different orders and watched each type of image for around three minutes before completing a behavioral questionnaire.
The study found, “on measures of cute aggression, feeling overwhelmed by positive emotions, approachability, appraisal of cuteness, and feelings of caretaking, participants rated more cute animals significantly higher than less cute animals. There were significant correlations between participants’ self-report of behaviors related to cute aggression and ratings of cute aggression in the current study.” According to the EEG data, greater activity was measured in brain areas involved with emotion for the cutest animals. As cute aggression increased, so did activists in the brain’s reward system.
“It’s not just reward and it’s not just emotion. Both systems in the brain are involved in this experience of cute aggression,” Stavropoulos said.
Researchers suggest that the aggressive thoughts are the brain’s attempt at helping people get control of the overwhelming positive emotions taking over multiple areas of the brain. Oriana Aragón,assistant professor at Clemson University and part of the Yale team that first coined the term cute aggression, “It could possibly be that somehow these expressions help us to just sort of get it out and come down off that baby high a little faster.”
The phenomenon is an example of dimorphous expressions of positive emotion, when “extremely positive experiences, and positive appraisals thereof, produce intense positive emotions that often generate both positive expressions (e.g., smiles) and expressions normatively reserved for negative emotions (e.g., tears).”
Chances are, people who pinch a baby’s cheeks and nibble their toes are the same who will cry at weddings, a baby’s birth, or laugh nervously in less than appropriate situations.
Have you experienced cute aggression or does the thought of an urge to punch a cute animal sound outlandish to you? Stavropoulos reports, anecdotally of course, that about 70-75 percent of people she talks to totally understand the urge to squish adorable things. The other 25-30 percent have no idea what she’s talking about.