You know that feeling when you're holding something adorable and suddenly want to mash its cute little ribcage into its lungs? It's a feeling generally accompanied by a statement like, "Aghck it's just so sweet! I could just crush it!" At face value this is a fairly psychopathic urge, but it turns out this frustration is actually a well-documented psychological phenomenon known as "cute aggression."
The phenomenon was first properly documented by two Yale graduates, Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragon, in 2012. They set up a experiment in which they handed out sheets of bubble wrap to 109 study participants and showed them either slideshows of cute, funny, or neutral-looking animals. The general theory was that people watching any of the three slide groups would fiddle with the wrap, with only minor bubble-popping upswings for the cute slides. But what researchers observed was that the people looking at cute animals completely freaked out, popping far more bubbles than either of the other two groups.
To find out why, I spoke with Anna Brooks, a senior lecturer in cognitive neuroscience from Southern Cross University. According to Brooks, this behavior is "frustration about an over-the-top reaction that we can't really act upon." Not only that, but everyone feels it far more acutely when they can't physically touch the animal they're seeing.
The science behind cute aggression is still reasonably murky, but Brooks explains that the typical theory comes down to cross-wiring in the brain. " The brain's mesocorticolimbic system mediates the response to cuteness," she says. "Dopamine is released, and that makes us feel good. But interestingly, this process also is involved when we act out on aggressive tendencies. It's possible that there's some cross-wiring of the response to cuteness and aggression being mediated by dopamine release."
I asked Brooks why this might be the case, and it turns out there's a pretty interesting evolutionary explanation: The human brain chews up vast amounts of energy, especially when we're feeling emotional. And that's why brains have to be able to modulate their own emotional responses. As Brooks says, "The ability to regulate one's strength of emotional response is highly adaptive: It stops us from investing too much energy into things."
In layman's terms, while we're melting into puddles looking at small dogs on Facebook, we're basically expending energy that our bodies could better spend on something productive. So our brains compensate. They hand over a rush of the opposing emotion to mediate the experience and basically tell us to get on with our day. Brooks likens the experience to that slightly mad feeling you get when you're so desperately sad that you begin to laugh hysterically.
Dyer and Aragon from the original Yale study referred to these mechanisms as dimorphous expressions of positive emotion and concluded much the same thing after the experiment. As Dyer explained in an interview with Live Science, "It might be that how we deal with high positive emotion is to sort of give it a negative pitch somehow. That sort of regulates, keeps us level, and releases that energy."
Cute aggression is a universal psychological phenomenon that all humans experience to varying degrees. The Filipino language, Tagalog, probably has the most succinct word to describe the feeling: Gigil, which means gritting your teeth and trembling when a situation becomes overwhelming.
Our brains are always going to excessively reward us for looking at cute things because—as much as our lavish collections of contraceptives might indicate otherwise—we're designed to want babies. Sure, dogs aren't exactly the same as kids, but they do share a lot of the same features. And that's probably why I desperately want to smoosh a puppy in its lovely fuzzy face until it stops breathing.
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