In the delightful presence of chubby babies, fluffy puppies or other adorable little things, it isn’t uncommon to be overwhelmed by a desire to squeeze, pinch or even bite them. You certainly don’t want to hurt the cute creatures—you just want to … squish them. As Jon Hamilton reports for NPR, a recent study may reveal what happens in the brain to fuel this paradoxical response, which scientists refer to as “cute aggression.”
“Cute aggression” was first described in a 2015 study, but most investigations into this phenomenon have been concerned with its behavioral underpinnings, says Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside and a clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience. So, as part of an investigation published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, Stavropoulos and her co-author Laura Alba sought to find out how the brain influences our strange response to cute babies and animals.
The researchers recruited 54 participants between the ages of 18 and 40 and fitted them with EEG caps, which use electrodes to measure brain activity. While wearing the caps, the participants were asked to look 32 photographs divided into four blocks: one consisted of images of adult animals (which the study authors classify as “less cute”), one of baby animals (classified as “more cute”), and two of human babies. The first block of human baby images had been altered to enhance features that we perceive as cuter—like big eyes and full cheeks—while the other was altered to reduce those traits.
After they had viewed the images, the participants were asked to fill out questionnaires that measured their responses to the photos, like how cute they found the photo subjects and how much cute aggression they were experiencing. To assess cute aggression, for instance, the participants were asked to rate the extent to which they agreed with statements like “I want to squeeze something” and “I feel like pinching those cheeks!” They also rated expressions of feeling overwhelmed by the images, of wanting to approach the subjects of the photos, and of wanting to care for the subjects of the photos.
Images of baby animals elicited the strongest response; according to the study authors, the participants expressed more significant sentiments of cute aggression, feeling overwhelmed, caretaking and so on toward baby animals than adult animals. Surprisingly, the same distinction was not observed in the participants’ reaction to images of babies that had been enhanced to look more or less cute—possibly, Stavropoulos tells Gizmodo’s Catie Keck, because both sets of babies were “objectively pretty cute.”
“Adult animals and baby animals are strikingly different,” Stavropoulos elaborates. “But these pictures of babies were in fact so well photographically manipulated that they are both pretty cute looking.”
Using the EEG caps, the researchers were also able to gain insight into the neural activity of participants who experienced cute aggression. This response was associated with greater activity not only in the brain’s emotional systems, but also in its reward systems, which regulate motivation, pleasure and feelings of “wanting.”
Scientists suspect that cute aggression is the brain’s way of coping with the overwhelming response that occurs when these two powerful brain systems are triggered; to temper the onslaught of positive feelings, in other words, the brain tosses in a dash of aggression. And there may be a good reason, evolutionarily speaking, why this occurs.
“[I]f you find yourself incapacitated by how cute a baby is—so much so that you simply can't take care of it—that baby is going to starve,” Stavropoulos says.
Moving forward, Stavropoulos hopes to tease out more nuances of cute aggression—like whether parents experience more cute aggression when looking at images of babies than people without children. In the meantime, rest assured that there is no need to feel bad if the sight of pudgy babies fills you with a weird compulsion to pinch them; it’s just the brain’s way of making sure that nothing gets too cute to handle.