Ever looked at a cute baby and just wanted to pinch their chubby cheeks or nibble on their toes? Or had an overwhelming urge to squeeze a wriggling little puppy so tight in your arms? Of course, without wanting to hurt it at all! If the answer’s ‘yes’, then you’re one of the many people who experience something called “cute aggression”.
It’s a strange play of the mind where something is so cute we experience heightened, somewhat aggressive, emotions towards it — but don’t worry, because it’s not as scary as it sounds! Nor is it actually a bad thing. In fact, cute aggression is considered a normal response and is likely connected to our innate instinct to care for our young.
If you ever get that urge to smush, squeeze, or bite incredibly cute things without ever wanting to cause any physical harm, then you’re not alone. Researchers estimate at least half of all adults experience these feelings regularly. Other studies have found that about 64 percent of people claim they’ve said the phrase “it’s so cute I want to squeeze it”, and about 74 percent of people said they’ve actually squeezed a cute animal before. So let’s talk about why cute things can make us feel this way.
The science behind cute aggression
A 2018 study analyzed brain activity as it related to cute aggression in hopes of understanding the “It’s so cute I want to crush it” phenomenon. They had participants view photos of babies and animals, with some photos edited to be ‘extra cute’ (meaning bigger eyes and chubbier cheeks). In between pictures, the adults were asked what the photos made them feel and rated their level of cute aggression based on a scale developed by Yale researchers.
The study found that cuter photos resulted in higher brain activity in the emotional system, but also in the brain’s reward system (the area responsible for pleasure). It’s thought that these systems working at the same time can effectively overwhelm the brain, so it starts producing aggressive thoughts to help control the strong positive ones. In a way, it’s trying to balance out and regulate the intense emotions you’re feeling.
What drives cute aggression?
The reason why some people feel so strongly about adorable babies or newborn animals is likely linked to our natural instinct to care for and protect our young. As humans, our babies need constant care as they are highly dependent for a while after birth. The intense emotions associated with cute aggression are believed to be linked to our instinctual care mechanisms. When we see something that has baby-like features, we are driven to want to care for it, because we see it as vulnerable.
In fact, almost anything that has baby-like features can trigger this response. Researchers have found that even inanimate objects such as cars (yes… cars) with baby-like features (think Mini Coopers or VW Beetles with rounded edges and bigger headlights) are often perceived as “cute” and can compel a “let me care for it” reaction.
Does cute aggression make us better at caring for our young?
It’s an interesting question. Researchers in the 2018 cute aggression study wondered a similar thing, but to date, there have not been additional studies looking at how cute aggression might have an impact on parental bonding and responding to baby’s needs. And all of this to say, you shouldn’t be worried about your ability to bond with baby if you don’t experience cute aggression yourself.
If you’ve been reading this thinking, “OK… I’ve never felt this way before ”, don’t worry. Individuals that experience cute aggression tend to be more expressive and have more intense emotions towards things others might not (they’re the people you see crying at weddings or during sappy movies). So just because you don’t want to go up to that baby and squeeze their little cheeks, it doesn’t mean you don’t think they’re cute, or that you won’t provide them with the love, care, and bonding they need; it just may be that your natural emotional reaction is less intense and so your brain doesn’t feel the need to regulate those emotions.
But if you are one to feel your emotions full throttle, then you’ll understand why you want to nibble on the toes of the next adorable baby that you see. It’s just your brain’s way of handling the overwhelming amount of cuteness.