Sometimes merely acknowledging the cuteness of a duckling, a cub, or even a human child isn’t good enough. Sometimes cuteness is so arresting that the only logical reaction is an intense urge to squeeze a little dear to smithereens. In a study published Wednesday in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience scientists announced that this desire isn’t just a playful wish — it’s actually an appetite that can be traced within the brain.
While researchers have previously studied the “cute aggression” phenomenon, this paper is the first to confirm a neural basis for it. A team from the University of California, Riverside discovered that there is detectable activity in the neural reward system in the brains of people who readily admit they feel overwhelmed by seeing a cute animal or baby. Cuteness also triggers these people into feeling an immense desire to take care of the cutie — and to think about taking a playful bite out of it.
Lead author Katherine Stavropoulos, Ph.D. is a specialist in the brain’s reward system. After reading about cute aggression in 2015, she knew that she would eventually study its neural underpinnings once she ran a lab of her own. This study is a manifestation of that goal.
“Honestly, I was surprised and excited about all of the results,” Stavropoulos tells Inverse. “That’s the fun and scary part about doing a study where you’re the first person to study something — we are the first group to ever study the neuroscience of cute aggression — so there’s no literature or research to help us predict results or put results into context.”
Stravropoulos says that the most fascinating thing that she and study co-author Laura Alba, a Ph.D. student, learned is that cute aggression appears to involve both the reward and emotion systems, rather than just one or the other.
In the study, 54 participants between the ages of 18 and 40 were asked to look at photographs divided into categories while their brain activity was measured with electrode-fitted caps. They were shown pictures of babies and animals, with some of the baby images manipulated to appear extra cute — this means larger eyes and larger heads. The pictures of non-human animals were a mix of adults and babies.
Between seeing the cute and extra cute images, the participants were surveyed on how they felt about the pictures they saw and how much cute aggression they were experiencing, based on a scale of cute aggression dimorphous emotions developed by Yale researchers in 2015. These are the emotions a person feels when an extremely positive experience actually creates a reaction that’s typically paired with a negative emotion — like wanting to eat the toes of a friend’s newborn baby.
For example, how do you feel about watching these polar bear cubs? If you want to eat them up — but also know you would never actually act upon that desire — you might be feeing cute aggression.
Overall, study participants reported feeling cute aggression more toward baby animals than adult animals, and more so towards human babies that were digitally enhanced to appear even more infantile. When these people were experiencing cute aggression, that experience showed up in the brain.
Specifically, this was true for the people who reported feeling overwhelmed by cuteness — people who are less overwhelmed by cute pictures showed weaker relationships between cuteness appraisal and cute aggression. When people were asked if they had ever said “it’s so cute I want to squeeze it,” about 64 percent said yes, and when asked if they had ever actually squeezed a cute animal, about 74 percent said yes.
“It’s definitely not a universal experience, which I find fascinating,” explains Stavropoulos. “When I describe the phenomenon to people, I usually see that about 70 to 75 percent of people nod immediately and know exactly what I’m describing and have experienced it. The other 25 to 30 percent look at me strangely and have no clue what I’m talking about or why anyone would feel that.”
Yet — there is an idea as to why a person would, in fact, feel that way. It’s possible that cuteness aggression emerged as a way to keep people from being incapacitated by their positive feelings for the thing that’s cute. If you’re overwhelmed by the adorableness of a baby, it’s less likely you’ll be able to give it the attention it deserves.
“My hypothesis is that cute aggression serves as a ‘regulating’ response when people are feeling too overwhelmed by something cute,” explains Stavropoulos. “I think when people are overwhelmed by how cute something is, and their reward system is really activated, there might be this need to regulate that overwhelming feeling, and cute aggression may serve that role.”
In the future, she wants to study whether people with pets are more likely to experience cute aggression towards animals than those without pets, and whether parents are more likely to experience cute aggression towards babies than those without children. Seeing cuties is nice — but when they are our own cuties, it’s likely even nicer.