Sometimes you feel an urge to squeeze that fluffy puppy until you crush its bones, smother a basket of kittens or chomp down on a newborn baby’s thigh.
Turns out, cute aggression is the real deal, scientists say. It’s OK to encounter those feelings when you’re faced with something too overwhelmingly adorable.
“It’s the aggressive response we sometimes have to super-cute images of other creatures in which we feel like ‘eating up’ or even biting them because they’re so cute but we can’t get ‘at’ them to express how gorgeous they are so it becomes frustration,” according to Dr. Anna Brooks, an Australian neuroscientist at Southern Cross University.
“It’s not a new concept in the colloquial sense. Expressions like ‘you’re so cute I could eat you up’ show it’s something that’s been around as a human behaviour for a long time … 100 per cent, lots and lots of people feel this way,” she told Global News.
“Cute aggression” only came onto North Americans’ radar in the past few years, but there are already words to describe it in Spanish, Filipino, Indonesian, and Zulu, for example, Dr. Oriana Aragon, a Yale University scientist studying emotion, said.
She’s been studying cute aggression for years after she saw celebrity, Leslie Bibb, tell Conan O’Brien that when faced with babies, she wanted to “punch them in the face” meanwhile a puppy was so cute, she wanted to “kick its head.”
“This was what seemed to be a reasonable person with an unreasonable reaction, so I wanted to take a closer look,” Aragon explained.
In initial surveys, she learned that people were tempted to pinch, squeeze or nibble at cute babies. They didn’t do it, but the “overwhelmingly” wanted to.
Next, she conducted an experiment in which 109 volunteers were handed sheets of bubble wrap while watching slideshows of cute, funny or neutral-looking animals.
Aragon and her team guessed that across the board, the volunteers would play with the bubble wrap regardless of which photos they were looking at but when the group was faced with the adorable animals, they lost it: they popped the most bubbles compared to their counterparts watching the funny and neutral animals.
In other studies, researchers found that babies with chubby cheeks and big eyes elicited “higher expressions of care.” People who looked at their photos felt they wanted to take care of and protect them, but they simultaneously wanted to pinch their cheeks and “eat them up.”
Aragon calls it “dimorphous expressions” — a clash of positive and negative emotions used to balance out our emotions.
Think about it, she said. When someone wins the lottery, they’re so happy they break into tears. When you weep during a sad movie, you also laugh at yourself. Or when you’re confronted with a puppy, the cuteness is compensated with aggression.
“The idea is that we have mechanisms that help us to calm down when we feel so much of one emotion. These expressions help us regulate within our own body how we’re feeling,” she said.
It seems to work, too. Those who encounter strong dimorphous expressions tend to get back to their baseline mood after facing cute overload.
Brooks tied it to evolution: our brains chew up so much of our energy, especially when we’re highly emotional. It has to regulate our emotions so we don’t overextend ourselves.
“The idea with cute aggression — the ‘negative’ response to a desperately cute stimulus — is that it helps mediate the powerful response of wanting to cuddle and protect the cute stimulus. It’s a way of counterbalancing an otherwise overpowering emotional response,” she said.
There could be another mechanism at play, too. Your body could be acting out the dimorphous expression to let others around you pick up on what you need, Aragon explained.
After a lottery win, you could throw your fists into the air with joy, then break down into tears, letting the people around you know that you need to be comforted.
An Olympian could jump for joy after winning a gold medal, then jut out his chest and expand his body by throwing his arms around, and making fists, letting those around him know that he needs space.
“It triggers the responsiveness in the people around you. It could have something to do with interpersonal regulation,” Aragon said.
So, the next time you’re overcome with an urge to tug at puppy’s ears or pinch your baby’s chubby arms, know that you’re dealing with normal emotions.
“Cute aggression is a new label on a very old behaviour,” Aragon said.