Yes, there’s a reason why you want to pinch babies’ chubby cheeks or legs, and no, it’s not a maternal instinct. It’s what researchers have labeled “cute aggression.”
Cute aggression happens when a person sees something (normally an adorable animal or small child) and experiences an exceptionally strong reaction to the item.
Cute aggression even made its way into pop culture. Comedian Iliza Shlesinger famously talked about her pained reaction to chubby baby legs in a recent Netflix special. The animated film Despicable Me featured one young character exclaim “IT’S SO FLUFFY, I’M GONNA DIE!” upon receiving a giant plush unicorn.
Understanding "cute aggression"
Clearly, people around the world feel really, really strongly about cute things. But why humans respond like this has stumped behavioral psychologists in recent years. New research from neuroscience, however, could shed more light on the subject.
Katherine Stavropoulos is a clinical psychologist with an extensive background in neuroscience. She works at the University of California, Riverside. Using electrophysiology, she studied the human brain’s electrical response to external stimuli of cute critters.
Stavropoulos first heard of “cute aggression” in the academic sense after a team of Yale University psychologists published a study about it in 2015.
"The Yale researchers initially found that people reported feeling cute aggression more in response to baby animals versus adult animals," Stavropoulos said. "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 foreheads."
And if people wanted to squeeze, crush, or pinch creatures they claim to love, would their brain show that response? Stavropoulos believed so. She suggested that the part of the brain controlling “cute aggression” would be tied to the brain’s reward system -- the same part that handles emotional processing and feelings of want.
How humans handle "cute" objects
Stavropoulos studied 54 participants between the ages of 18 and 40 who wore electrode caps to track their brain activity.
The researchers then showed the participants 32 photographs divided into the following four categories:
1) cute babies with eyes and features enhanced to look cuter
2) non-enhanced babies
3) cute baby animals enhanced to have cuter features (i.e. bigger eyes)
4) non-enhanced or adult animal pictures
The participants were then asked how they felt after seeing the photos, particularly about how overwhelmed they were after seeing the pictures. The survey ranged from “I can’t handle it!” and “I can’t stand it!” to things like “I want to hold it!” and “I want to protect it!”
Stavropoulos said her observations confirmed the team’s theory.
"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," Stavropoulos said. "This is an exciting finding, as it confirms our original hypothesis that the reward system is involved in people's experiences of cute aggression."
But why do we feel cute aggression? According to the researchers, it might be a way to bring us back down to earth rather than keep us entranced by how cute something is.
"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."