Cute Aggression: Why Adorable Things Make Us Want to Squeeze Them to Death

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by kitten's cuteness that you've been hit with an urge to squish it out of love? Then you've experienced cute aggression: a phenomenon whose mechanisms scientists explored in a study.

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, wanted to investigate what happens inside our brains when we experience cute aggression, which they defined as the desire to "to squeeze, crush or bite cute things, albeit without any desire to cause harm."

"Most of the feelings for cute aggression can be viewed as contradictory, such as in the event of receiving a new puppy and simultaneously crying and smiling," the authors of the paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, wrote.

They wondered whether the part of the brain in charge of rewards played a role in setting off these emotions.

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To conduct their research, the team recruited 54 participants between the ages of 18 and 40. Of the total, 20 were male and 34 were female. The team hooked up the volunteers to special equipment that measured electrical signals in their brain neurons. While they were connected to the electrode caps, the participants viewed photos of cute babies and photos of babies doctored to appear cuter. They were also shown images of cute baby animals, and their less cute adult equivalents.

The participants also filled in questionnaires detailing their responses to the photographs, including how overwhelmed they felt by cuteness, and whether they wanted to care for the subjects of the images.

The cuter the animal in the image, the more likely the participants were to report feelings, including cute aggression, being overcome by positive emotions and caretaking urges. This difference wasn't noted in photos of human babies. The results also showed that the brain systems related to reward and emotions appeared to light up when participants encountered sensations of cute aggression.

kitten puppy cute aggression getty stock
Researchers have investigated the phenomenon of cute aggression. Getty Images

Katherine Stavropoulos, study author and assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside, explained in a statement: "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."

"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.

"This is an exciting finding, as it confirms our original hypothesis that the reward system is involved in people's experiences of cute aggression," she said.

The researchers concluded that cute aggression likely occurs in order to help us deal with emotional responses when encountering something cute, and encourage us to give care. From an evolutionary perspective, it may have developed to prevent us from being incapacitated by cuteness, the authors 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," said Stavropoulos.

The researchers hope that in the future their work could prompt investigations into how mental disorders affect an individual's experience with cute aggression. Mothers struggling with postpartum depression or those who lack empathy would be interesting starting points, the authors wrote.

The paper was preceded by research at Yale University published in 2015 in the journal Psychological Science. That study found people were more likely to experience cute aggression in relation to baby animals than adult animals.