In the past few weeks, the world has been introduced to a magical and wonderful creature: baby Yoda.
His huge eyes, glorious ears, and short stature have captured hearts and minds everywhere, and the internet has exploded with memes, merchandise, and public professions of love. There are even those who claim they would die for him. There are tons of news articles about how and why baby Yoda is so popular, and what it is about him that people find so irresistible. Given my previous research on "Cute Aggression," I have spoken with a few outlets about the neuroscientific basis of our collective obsession.
Why is he so cute?
First, let's talk about why almost everyone finds baby Yoda so darn cute. It turns out that there is likely an evolutionary basis for why we love him so much. His cuteness can largely be explained by what Konrad Lorenz called the "baby schema," which Lorenz used to describe a set of features that people find prototypically cute. These features include: large eyes, small noses, small chins, and large heads. In looking at baby Yoda, it is clear that he has all of these features (plus those adorable giant ears that melt our hearts).
What is happening in our brains?
But we know that baby Yoda is more than just cute. What is it about him that makes people say, "I can't take it!" or "I just want to eat him"? Why do some of us feel completely overwhelmed with the depths of our emotions for a small green creature that doesn't exist in real life?
The answer likely lies in the phenomenon known as "cute aggression," which was discussed in a previous post. In short, cute aggression is a term for the paradoxical urge some of us have to squeeze, bite, or pinch very cute things, albeit without the desire to cause harm. Our research found that people who report feeling cute aggression when looking at pictures of baby animals had more reward-related brain activity than those who felt less cute aggression. That suggests the reward system in our brains is likely involved in both our love for baby Yoda and why some of us report wanting to eat/squeeze/bite him.
We also found that being overwhelmed by positive emotions was a key factor in cute aggression. In fact, the relationship between emotion-related brain activity and feelings of cute aggression was mediated by being overwhelmed. That is: For people who felt overwhelmed by positive feelings when looking at pictures of baby animals, their amount of emotion-related brain activity was directly related to their self-reported feelings of cute aggression. People who were not overwhelmed by their positive feelings did not have a strong relationship between emotion-related brain activity and feelings of cute aggression. Findings were similar for the relationship between reward-related brain activity and cute aggression.
Why doesn't everyone want to bite baby Yoda?
The connection between feeling overwhelmed and cute aggression might help explain why this is not a universal phenomenon. In our study, 64% of participants reported that they had said, "it's so cute I want to squeeze it!" at some point in their lives, and 74% said that they had squeezed a cute animal. But what about the other 26-36%? They certainly aren't immune to finding things cute. So what is the difference between those who feel cute aggression and those who do not? The answer is likely due (in part) to whether someone feels overwhelmed by their positive feelings or not.
Think about it this way—there are some people who have the following thought process:
1. "Wow, that's cute!"
2. "I can't take how cute that is! [I am overwhelmed by these positive feelings]"
3. "I want to squeeze/pinch/bite/eat it [the cute thing]!"
On the other hand, there are others who think "Wow, that's cute!" but never experience the latter two thoughts. Those people still find things cute, they just don't find those feelings overwhelming, or experience cute aggression.
So ... now what?
Where do we go from here? First of all, we should all continue loving baby Yoda! And for those of you who feel paradoxical urges to eat him ... don't worry! There is a scientific explanation for your feelings, and we know you would never hurt the little guy. And if you aren't overwhelmed by images of baby Yoda, and definitely do not want to squeeze him? It might just mean you aren't as easily overwhelmed by feelings. Either way, it's great that baby Yoda is making people think about the science of cuteness and to ask questions about how and why we feel the way we do, and what the role of neuroscience is in all of this.
Anything that brings awareness to neuroscientific and behavioral research and helps us better understand the origins of our own feelings is great. So rock on, baby Yoda! I, for one, want to give the little green dude a hug (and can't wait for a fully plush stuffed animal to come out so I can do just that).
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