“It’s so Cute I Could Crush It”: Understanding Cute Aggression
Cute aggression has been discussed as an example of ‘dimorphous expression’ of emotions: feeling something but expressing the opposite. 
Cute aggression has been discussed as an example of ‘dimorphous expression’ of emotions: feeling something but expressing the opposite. (Photo: iStockphoto)

“It’s so Cute I Could Crush It”: Understanding Cute Aggression

Do you feel the irresistible urge to squeeze a cute little puppy? Or to pull a chubby baby’s cheeks? Interestingly, there exists a name for this feeling.

Cute aggression is defined as the urge some people get to squeeze, crush, or bite cute things, of course without any desire to cause harm.

A recent study, published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, has found that when people are overwhelmed by cuteness, the brain’s reward system responds with aggression.

As reported in the Science Daily, Katherine Stavropoulos, assistant professor of special education at the Universiy of California, shared that reseach on how and why cute aggression occurs had remained the domain of behavioural psycohology.

However, this study takes the research a few steps further by using electrophysiology to evaluate surface-level electrical activity that arises from neurons firing in people’s brains. Studying that activity gauges neural responses to a range of external stimuli.

The Yale researchers initially found that people reported feeling cute aggression more in response to baby animals versus adult animals. But even beyond that, people reported feeling cute aggression more in response to picture of human babies that had been digitally enhanced to appear more infantile, and therefore ‘more cute,’ by enlarging features like their eyes, cheeks, and forehead.

Building upon previous research, Stavropoulos hypothesized that the experience of feeling ‘cute aggression’ might be related to the brain's reward system, which deals with motivation, feelings of ‘wanting’ and pleasure, or to its emotion system.

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The Study

(GIF Courtesy: Giphy.com)

Along with Laura Alba, she studied 54 participants aged between 18 and 40, who wore caps outfitted with electrodes. They were then made to look at four blocks of 32 categorised into : cute (digitally enhanced) babies, less cute (non-enhanced) babies, baby animals, and adult animals.

The participants answered a survey to rate how cute they found each block (called appraisal), and how overwhelmed they felt after viewing the photo. The results were similar to what the Yale researchers had found in 2015.

Overall, participants self-reported more significant feelings of cute aggression, being overwhelmed, appraisal, and care taking toward cute (baby) animals than toward less cute (adult) animals.
Katherine Stavropoulos

Among the two categories of babies, however, the researchers did not observe the same pattern. Using electrophysiology, Stavropoulos revealed the neural basis for cute aggression.

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.

“Essentially, for people who tend to experience the feeling of ‘not being able to take how cute something is’, cute aggression happens. 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.”

“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.

Cute aggression has been discussed as an example of dimorphous expression of emotions. Dimorphous expression refers to someone experiencing a strong emotion of one type (e.g., happy or sad) but expressing the opposite emotion. For example, some people report laughing when they are sad, or crying when they are happy.

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