Quirks & Quarks

Is that baby so adorable you want to eat it up? You're committing 'cute aggression'

Cute aggression is your brain's response to a potentially paralyzing adorableness overdose.

Cute aggression is your brain's response to a potentially paralyzing adorableness overdose.

Do these cheeks look pinchable to you? If yes, then experiencing "cute aggression." (Pixabay / amyelizabethquinn)
Listen7:44

Do you ever get that overwhelming feeling when you see an adorable baby that you just want to squeeze their cheeks? Or maybe you feel this way when looking into the big eyes of a puppy or kitten? This is a phenomenon known as "cute aggression." And now scientists have figured out what's going on in our brain to explain this urge.

"It's this desire to squeeze something cute pinch its cheeks, maybe, if it's a baby," said Katherine Stavropoulos, a neuroscientist and assistant professor of special education  at the University of California Riverside. 

Stavropoulos said her work shows cute aggression is an urge that about 70 to 75 per cent of people feel.

Some people feel this way and they probably secretly think it's a little weird. Or maybe they've caught themselves saying something like, 'I could just crush you,' and people look at them really funny.- Katherine Stavropoulos, University of California Riverside

"Some people feel this way and they probably secretly think it's a little weird. Or maybe they've caught themselves saying something like, 'I could just crush you,' and people look at them really funny."

It's not true aggression, of course, said Stavropoulos. "If you ask anyone who experiences cute aggression, they don't actually want to squeeze a baby in a harmful way."

Cute aggression in your brain

The test subjects all wore an EEG cap, which looks like a swimmer's cap with electrodes sewn in. While Stavropoulos recorded their brain activity, she had the test subjects look at pictures of varying cuteness of both animals and babies. 

"Cute aggression" is also something we feel when we see adorable puppies like this little guy and just want to squeeze them. (Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images)

"I think the biggest finding here is that it's not just the reward system, it's also the emotion system," said Stavropoulos.

"We found that for people who have more activity in the reward system of their brain when seeing pictures of cute animals also report having higher levels of cute aggression."

"We also found that it's pretty important whether or not someone feels overwhelmed by how positively they're feeling." 

Why we feel cute aggression

The same people who experienced cute aggression and feel overwhelmed would also say things like, "I can't stand it. I can't take it. I can't handle it." Stavropoulos said it's the feelings underlying those phrases that leads to cute aggression.

A 2015 study from researchers out of Yale University was the first to document these feelings of "cute aggression." Stavropoulos said her neuroscience findings supports their hypothesis that cute aggression might be our brain's way of not becoming incapacitated by the strong overwhelming positive feelings. 

Do you feel an overwhelming urge to wrap these kittens up in your arms and hold them tight? You might be experiencing, "cute aggression." (VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP/Getty Images)

"You feel so positively about this thing that's so cute. Or maybe it's that you want to take care of it and then that positive feeling somehow becomes overwhelming, it becomes too much. And so perhaps cute aggression is our brains way of kind of bringing us back down and making those feelings less overwhelming. It's a way — maybe — of kind of mediating or moderating those overwhelming positive feelings."

Stavropoulos, whose research focuses mostly on the reward system in individuals with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder, said she's very keen to find out whether or not people with autism experience this. "I'm very curious whether or not they actually report feeling cute aggression, especially with animals, if they're people that have benefited from kind of a service animal."

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