Why Do We Want to Squish and Squeeze Things That Are Cute? Science Has the Answer

The response dubbed “cute aggression” by researchers is the brain’s attempt to self-regulate when confronted with intense emotion

Baby Seal
An adorable seal pup Gary K Smith / Alamy Stock Photo

In the 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. People don’t really want to hurt the creatures—just to … squish them. Turns out, there’s a scientific term for this paradoxical response: “cute aggression.”

In 2015, Yale University researchers published a study about human responses to cuteness, which are often dimorphous: both positive and negative. The researchers concluded that reactions to “cute stimuli”—which can range from smiles, to tears, to aggression—are brought on by the intensity of positive emotion rather than assessment of the stimuli itself. The study interested Katherine Stavropoulos, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, who later characterized the term “cute aggression” for NPR’s Jon Hamilton: People “just have this flash of thinking: ‘I want to crush it’ or ‘I want to squeeze it until [it] pops’ or ‘I want to punch it.’”

Stavropoulos wondered whether this phenomenon could be measured in brain activity. She and doctoral student Laura Alba conducted a study to find out, and their findings were published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience in 2018. The researchers gathered 54 participants between ages 18 and 40, fitted them with electrode caps to measure their brain activity, and showed each person 32 photographs.

The images were divided into four groups: adult animals (which the study authors classify as “less cute”), baby animals (classified as “more cute”), and two sets of human baby portraits. The first block of human baby images was digitally altered to enhance features we perceive as cuter—big eyes and full cheeks—while the other portraits were either left untouched or altered to reduce cuteness.

After participants viewed the images, they completed questionnaires that indicated both how cute they found each block of photos and the level of cute aggression they experienced. To assess the latter, researchers asked participants to rate the extent to which they agreed with statements like, “I want to squeeze something,” and, “I feel like pinching those cheeks!” Researchers measured how “overwhelmed by emotion” each participant was after seeing the photos by having them rate their agreement with statements like, “I can’t handle it!” Stavropoulos and Alba also checked participants’ urges to approach and care for the subjects in the photos.

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The images of baby animals elicited the strongest response. According to the researchers, participants expressed more cute aggression, felt more overwhelmed and had a greater caretaking impulse toward baby animals than adult animals. They didn’t observe the same distinction between participants’ reactions to cuter and less-cute images of babies—possibly, Stavropoulos told Gizmodo’s Catie Keck, because both sets of babies were “objectively pretty cute.”

“Adult animals and baby animals are strikingly different,” Stavropoulos elaborated. “But these pictures of babies were in fact so well photographically manipulated that they are both pretty cute looking.”

By using the electroencephalography caps, researchers were 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.”

As Stavropoulos told UC Riverside News’ Tess Eyrich, she found strong correlations between ratings of cute aggression and the reward response in the brain to cute animals. “This is an exciting finding,” she said, “as it confirms our original hypothesis that the reward system is involved in people’s experiences of cute aggression.” The study also reinforced Yale’s 2015 findings, relating aggressive responses to overwhelming emotion. As Stavropoulos concluded, cute aggression—which contradicts the caregiving response—seems to be the “brain’s way of ‘bringing us back down’ by mediating our feelings of being overwhelmed.”

Why do you want to squeeze cute things? - Joshua Paul Dale

When these two powerful systems are triggered—emotion and reward—the brain tempers the onslaught of positive feelings by tossing in a dash of aggression. And researchers believe that aggressive response may have a positive function in evolution.

“If 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 said.

As neuroscientist Seraphina Solders wrote for NeuWrite San Diego, we understand why this type of “emotional regulation” is important regarding strong negative emotions. “But it might be more challenging to understand why we would need to regulate extreme positive emotions as well.”

Whatever the evolutionary cause of cute aggression, rest assured that there’s 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.

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