In 2011, actress Leslie Bibb went on Conan O’Brien and described seeing a dog at a hair salon with little bows in its hair. “I’m going to punch it, it’s so cute,” she said.
She felt something similar when she saw a friend’s cute baby, who was “all eyes, she kind of looks like tweety bird,” she said. “I’m going to punch that baby, she makes me so mad, she’s so cute.”
“So when you say you want to punch it…” O’Brien started.
“It’s like, I love it,” Bibb explained.
It’s a deeply relatable experience: Seeing something so cute, you just want to squeeze it or crush it. But it’s also an intriguing expression of emotion– at least that’s what emotions researcher Oriana Aragón thought when she saw that segment of O’Brien’s show.
Later, when Aragón discussed it with her father, he asked: Isn’t it the same as when a grandparent says “I'm gonna eat you up and pinch your cheeks?” or a friend says, "Oh, it's so cute, I want to bite it?" Realizing there might be a larger phenomenon taking place, Aragón decided to study it in the lab.
In a paper published in 2015, she named it “cute aggression”—that overwhelming desire you get to crush, bite, or squeeze cute things, but without actually wanting to hurt it.
In a new paper published this week in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, another group of researchers have taken on cute aggression, and looked at what’s taking place in the brain during this feeling.
They found that both the emotion and reward networks in the brain are active during cute aggression, and their findings may provide evidence to support one of Aragón’s original theories as to why cute aggression happens at all: That it’s a way to deal with overwhelming emotions of cuteness so that the cuteness doesn’t completely incapacitate us.
Evolutionarily speaking, it wouldn’t be great if we got completely overwhelmed by cuteness. There’s a lot of evidence that shows that the reason we think things are cute is to elicit a care response. An Austrian ethologist named Konrad Lorenz came up with the term baby schema in 1943 to describe the characteristics that we find cute in babies that make us want to take care of them. The baby schema is defined by round faces, big foreheads, big eyes, and full cheeks. When we see these features, something in us makes us care, and deeply.
“It's not easy to be a parent, and I think there's a lot to be said about the evolutionary basis of thinking something is so cute that you just want to take care of it despite everything else,” says psychologist Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor at UC Riverside and first author of the new paper. “I think it's a very instinctual, almost visceral response: I just want to protect that and make sure it's okay.
The baby schema extends beyond just human babies—pictures of baby animals are seen as cuter than the adult versions. It might have played a role in the way we’ve domesticated dogs to have big heads and eyes even as they get older.
A study from 2010 even found that when researchers altered the way cars looked to have more baby-like features—by doing things like enlarging the headlights to mimic large eyes, shrinking the grille to mimic a small nose— participants had more positive responses to the baby-faced cars than the “adult” cars.
Cute aggression is an example of dimorphous expression of emotion, Aragón tells me—meaning a person is feeling one strong emotion but expressing the opposite, like crying when they’re happy or laughing when they’re sad.
If you think about this closely, as Aragón did, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why do people, when feeling something intense, suddenly express a different emotion? Isn’t that confusing to others? In the original cute aggression work, Aragón and her colleagues hypothesized that maybe cute aggression, and other dimorphous expressions of emotion, exist to help regulate those positive emotional moments that are overwhelming.
And Aragón did find that when she showed people pictures of cute babies and animals, there was a relationship between feeling overwhelmed by positive feelings, and the presence of cute aggression.
Still, Stavropoulos wanted to know more about exactly what was going on in the brain when a person felt cute aggression. She studies the reward system in the brain, and thought it could be involved. (Previous work has shown that when women who had never had babies were shown manipulated super cute pictures of babies, they had increased activity in the nucleus accumbens—a part of the brain important for the reward system.)
“[Aragón’s] previous study set this all up, they were the first ones to kind of show this phenomenon was real,” Stavropoulos tells me. “But since it was all behavioral, we actually really had no idea what systems were involved.
Stavropoulos and her colleagues had 54 adults looks at pictures of cute and slightly less cute animals and babies, all while recording electrical activity the brain through an EEG cap, which records neurons firing from the surface of the scalp. From this electrical activity, it can infer where in the brain that activation is coming form.
The people looked at four categories of pictures in random order, the categories being cute baby animals, less cute adult animals, and cute and less cute babies. There were eight pictures of babies, two girls and six boys, and the participants saw two versions of them. One where the cuteness was enhanced—their eyes and cheeks were bigger, and another where the babies were less baby-like; they had smaller eyes and thinner cheeks.
When the participants saw each group of pictures, they were asked how cute they thought they were, and if they felt components of cute aggression like "I want to say, 'I want to eat you up,' through gritted teeth," or, "I want to say, 'Grr.'" They were also asked how overwhelmed they felt, if they had thoughts like “I can't stand it," "I can't take it," or "I'm overwhelmed by how positively I feel.”
From the EEG recordings, the researchers saw brain activity associated with activity in the reward system, and in the emotion system—confirming Stavropoulos’s hypothesis that the reward networks are involved in cute aggression.
The reward system has to do with motivation, and how much you want something. It’s involved in positive feelings and pleasure—but not just pleasure by itself, it’s what makes you want that thing again. That’s a little different from seeing activity in the emotional network alone. The emotion system can reflect all kinds of emotional experiences, not just pleasure, but anger, disgust, and sadness too.
For the emotion system, they found there was a relationship between how strong the emotional brain activity was, how overwhelmed a person said they felt, and the presence of cute aggression. It suggests that when someone felt an emotional response, it didn’t lead them straight to cute aggression. It had to first go through overwhelming feelings, and then cute aggression would take place.
They saw something similar in the reward system—the amount of reward activity in the brain was linked to how cute a person rated an image (on a scale of 1 to 10), and how overwhelmed they were. The people who thought things were really cute, and felt overwhelmed, had a strong relationship between brain reward response and cute aggression.
Taken altogether, Stavropoulos thinks the brain activity supports Aragón’s original hypotheses: That when people feel overwhelmed by how cute something is, cute aggression comes into play.
“This might be our brain's way of saying, ‘Chill out. Regulate it. Take a deep breath,’” Stavropoulos tells me.”You can't be incapacitated by how cute something is, because if you are, you can't take care of it.”
Stavropoulos and Aragón both agree that more work needs done before we can definitively say this is the reason for cute aggression. It’s still possible that cute aggression is just the way we express emotions when they get intense enough, and it doesn’t serve a regulatory purpose. Or, that the people who experience cute aggression are inherently more flexible in their emotional expressions.
Just a subset of people have cute aggression, not everyone. But interestingly, Aragón says that it’s something that can be seen cross-culturally. In her work, she did a survey of languages around the world and asked if there was a word in other cultures that meant something like “so cute I need to squeeze it,” in a playful way.
“In many languages around the world they actually have, like, a word for it,” Aragón tells me. “Whereas we go, "it's so cute I want to squish it," others have one word and it means "you are so cute I want to do harm to you." Also, she says, in both the new paper and the 2015 paper, cute aggression wasn’t found to be gendered—both men and women are susceptible to cute aggression.
It’s a powerful, often inescapable emotion—even for those like Aragón who study it. Thinking about it critically hasn’t spared her from the experience. The other day, Aragón says she saw an aerial picture of a whale in the water, and thought “Oh yeah, it’s a whale,” and didn’t care very much. Then, she saw another picture with the same whale, but it was next to its mother. The mother whale dwarfed the other whale in size.
“As soon as I saw that in ratio perspective there, that it was a little baby version of a whale, all of a sudden it was adorable,” she says. “When I understood it was a baby version, all the cute stuff comes about, and all of a sudden all those care mechanisms kick in. And I was like, ‘Of course we want to protect that baby, of course we want to make sure that baby has what it needs.’”
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