Want to Pinch a Baby's Cheeks? That's Cute Aggression.
New research shows that cute aggression has a neuroscience basis.
Posted Dec 06, 2018
Have you ever said, "It's just so cute I want to punch it!", and then realized everyone was looking at you strangely? Have you tried to explain that you don't actually want to punch the adorable puppy/kitten/baby, but that you just can't deal with how cute it is? If this sounds like you, you are likely experiencing cute aggression. Hi. My name is Katherine Stavropoulos, and I have an intense case of cute aggression.
New Research from our lab was designed to find the neural underpinnings of cute aggression, and to explore whether people's subjective experiences of cute aggression would correlate with brain activity. Our study was published this week in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, and has gotten some press from a variety of outlets, both local and abroad. I thought the blog post for this month should be dedicated to understanding what is happening to the brain during this phenomenon, and why we think some people feel it and others do not.
Let's start with the term, "cute aggression," and how it was initially discovered. In 2015, Oriana Aragon and colleagues published the first study to find scientific evidence for this phenomenon in the journal Psychological Science. They found that adults reliably reported feeling more cute aggression towards "more cute" babies (e.g. photographs of babies which had been manipulated with photo editing software to enhance "cute" features, like eyes, cheeks, and foreheads) vs. "less cute" babies (e.g. photographs of the same babies as above, but which had been edited to minimize those "cute" features). Interestingly, they found that this phenomenon extended to animals--adults reported higher levels of cute aggression towards baby vs. adult animals. The authors also found evidence for an emotional cascade from seeing a cute baby, through positive appraisal (e.g. "This baby is cute", "this baby is good"), to feeling overwhelmed (e.g. "I can't stand it!", "I can't handle it!"), and finally to experiencing cute aggression. The authors interpreted this as evidence that cute aggression may serve to regulate particularly overwhelming positive emotions.
In our study, we wanted to understand the brain basis of cute aggression. Our hypothesis was that cute aggression likely involved the reward system, the emotion system, or both. We showed participants the four categories of images described above: more cute babies, less cute babies, more cute (baby) animals, and less cute (adult) animals. After seeing pictures in a given category, participants were asked to complete behavioral ratings. These ratings asked about feelings of cute aggression, feeling overwhelmed, appraisal, and feelings related to care-taking. Each person saw all four categories of images (in a random order) and completed four different sets of behavioral ratings.
Our over-arching finding is that cute aggression involves brain activity in both the reward and emotion systems. This is exciting because it is the first time that the brain basis of cute aggression has been measured.
We also found that the experience of feeling overwhelmed by positive feelings (which we often hear people express as, "I can't stand it!", "I just can't take how cute it is!") seems important for determining whether is likely to experience cute aggression. For example, the relationship between emotion-related brain activity and feelings of cute aggression was mediated by how overwhelmed the person felt. In other words, people who reported feeling overwhelmed were more likely to have a strong relationship between brain activity related to emotion and cute aggression. On the other hand, people who didn't feel overwhelmed with positive feelings were less likely to have this relationship between emotion-related brain activity and cute aggression. That tells us that brain activity related to emotion isn't sufficient for predicting whether someone will experience cute aggression. Someone has to experience emotion-related brain activity and be overwhelmed.
Similarly, we found evidence for an emotional cascade from reward-related brain activity through both appraisal and feeling overwhelmed, to feelings of cute aggression. So people who find a picture very cute (appraisal) and feel overwhelmed are likely to have a relationship between reward-related brain activity and cute aggression.
And just how common is cute aggression? In our study, 64 percent of people reported having ever said, "It's so cute I want to squeeze it!", 74 percent said they had previously squeezed a cute animal, and 60 percent said they had squeezed a cute baby. So this certainly isn't a universal phenomenon—which makes it even more fascinating as an area of study.
So what does this all mean? I think there are a few takeaways:
The first is that more research should be done in this area. Our lab is starting new studies on this topic that will hopefully provide more clarity about why some people are more likely to experience cute aggression than others, and novel ways of measuring our body and brain's response to seeing cute images.
The second is that the next time you get the seemingly-odd urge to smoosh an adorable puppy, you can thank the reward and emotion systems in your brain and remember you aren't alone!
And finally, if you find yourself in a situation where people demand an explanation for why you just said out loud that you want to drop-kick that fuzzy penguin on TV, point them to these articles and say that it's just cute aggression.
Stavropoulos KKM and Alba LA. (2018). “It’s so Cute I Could Crush It!”: Understanding Neural Mechanisms of Cute Aggression. Front. Behav. Neurosci. 12:300. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00300
Aragón, O. R., Clark, M. S., Dyer, R. L., & Bargh, J. A. (2015). Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion: Displays of Both Care and Aggression in Response to Cute Stimuli. Psychological Science, 26(3), 259–273. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614561044