If you’ve ever come across a cute puppy or baby and felt the urge to squeeze or pinch them (but in such a way as to not cause harm) you’re certainly not alone. But isn’t it odd that something cute would elicit this reaction instead of more benign tokens of affection? Like most things, this phenomenon even has a name — it’s called ‘cute aggression’, and scientists now say that they’ve found the neurological basis for it. According to the researchers, we sometimes get overwhelmed by so much cuteness that “cute aggression is the brain’s way of ‘bringing us back down.’”

Credit: Pixabay.

Katherine Stavropoulos is an assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside. She first heard about cute aggression after a team of Yale University psychologists released research related to the phenomenon in 2015. This study found that people were more inclined to squeeze, crush, or even bite creatures they found cute, and this effect was far more prevalent in response to baby animals versus adult animals.

Stavropoulos wondered what neural processes underlie this behavior — if there was any in the first place. So, she and colleagues enlisted 54 participants aged 18 to 40 and repeated the Yale experiment. This time, the participants were fitted with caps that measured their brain’s electrical activity while they looked at four sets of photographs, each comprised of 32 photos. The four sets featured: cute (enhanced) babies, less cute (non-enhanced) babies, cute (baby) animals, and less cute (adult) animals.

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After viewing each set of photos, the participants were asked to rate on a scale from 1 to 10 how much they agreed with certain statements. For instance, the volunteers had to rate how overwhelmed they felt after viewing certain photos (“I can’t handle it!” and “I can’t stand it!”) and whether they felt compelled to touch the animal portrayed in the media (“I want to hold it!” and “I want to protect it!”).

Overall, the participants reported more feelings of cute aggression and caretaking toward cute baby animals than toward cute adult animals. There didn’t seem to be any significant difference in emotion and behavior between enhanced and non-enhanced photos.

The electrophysiology readings suggest that cute aggression was linked to the brain’s reward system and emotion system, the authors reported in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

“There was an especially strong correlation between ratings of cute aggression experienced toward cute animals and the reward response in the brain toward cute animals,” Stavropoulos said. “This is an exciting finding, as it confirms our original hypothesis that the reward system is involved in people’s experiences of cute aggression.”

“Essentially, for people who tend to experience the feeling of ‘not being able to take how cute something is,’ cute aggression happens,” She added. “Our study seems to underscore the idea that cute aggression is the brain’s way of ‘bringing us back down’ by mediating our feelings of being overwhelmed.”

Stravopoulos claims that cute aggression may have arisen as an evolutionary adaptation in order to ensure people are able to properly take care of creatures they consider ‘cute’.

“For example, 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. “Cute aggression may serve as a tempering mechanism that allows us to function and actually take care of something we might first perceive as overwhelmingly cute.”