When my youngest sister was a baby, I recall telling my mom through gritted teeth: â€œUgh, sheâ€™s so cute, I canâ€™t stand it. I just want to squeeze her!â€
Years later, I still feel this overwhelming pull to squeeze adorable things: when my son belly-laughs, when my puppy rests his perfect little head on my lap or when I think about Baby Dory.
This burning desire to playfully squeeze, bite, pinch or growl at cute things â€” without any actual intention to harm â€” is called â€œcute aggression.â€ Social psychologist Oriana AragÃ³n and her research team at Yale University gave this phenomenon its name. The term caught the mediaâ€™s attention after it was presented at a 2013 conference, and it took off from there.
Lest you feel like some kind of weirdo for feeling this way, it turns out cute aggression is actually quite common. AragÃ³n estimates that 50% to 60% of the population experiences it.
Cute aggression is an example of what researchers call â€œdimorphous expressionâ€ â€” when your internal feelings and the outward expression of those feelings seem to contradict one another. Other examples might include crying during joyful moments, like a wedding or the birth of a child, or laughing during an uncomfortable conversation.
AragÃ³n and her Yale colleagues hypothesized that because dimorphous expression seems to occur when a person is overwhelmed with emotion, cute aggression could be a mechanism to help regulate these intense feelings. And they found some evidence to support that.
In their study, which was published in 2015, participants viewed photos of babies with more infantile features (digitally altered to have larger eyes and cheeks and smaller noses) and less infantile features (manipulated to have smaller eyes and cheeks and larger noses). Then they were asked to rate how strongly they agreed with statements such as â€œWhen I look at this baby, I feel like I am overwhelmed by very strong positive feelingsâ€; â€œI feel like pinching those cheeksâ€; and â€œI feel like I want to take care of it.â€ Participants were also asked to gauge their emotional state before and after they were presented with the images.
Researchers found that the people who experienced feelings of cute aggression did â€œcome down off the â€˜cute highâ€™ faster,â€ AragÃ³n, now an assistant professor at Clemson University, told HuffPost. â€œThey got really amped up with the cutenessâ€ and then returned to a baseline state more quickly than those who didnâ€™t experience cute aggression.
â€œIt might be that this countervailing expression helps to tamp down the experienced emotion,â€ AragÃ³n said. (However, itâ€™s difficult to say whether the faux-aggressive feeling itself is what helped these people balance out their emotional state, or if people who experience cute aggression generally tend to move from emotional highs to lows more quickly.)
From an evolutionary standpoint, this makes sense. Research has established that infantile features encourage caretaking behaviors in adults.
â€œUltimately, the babyâ€™s well-being is served by cuteness eliciting both expressions of care and of aggression, because if the expresser is no longer incapacitated with overwhelming positive affect, that person may be better able to care for the baby,â€ the authors wrote in the study.
Another potential function of cute aggression and other forms of dimorphous expression? To help communicate our current emotional state to others so they can glean how we might behave next.
Say youâ€™re a parent taking your baby for a walk around the neighborhood. If a passerby comes up to you with a simple smile, that suggests a positive interaction is likely to occur. But you donâ€™t have much information beyond that. However, if a person approaches and theyâ€™re displaying â€œcute sadnessâ€ â€” saying â€œAwwâ€ with a pouty face and furrowed brows â€” that could mean they want to stop and calmly appreciate the baby. If someone approaches with a clenched jaw, saying, â€œOh my God, your baby is so cute. I just want to devour those cheeks!â€ then it might signal that a more energetic encounter is about to take place.
â€œWe find that in both cases, the mom or the caretaker of the baby understands that the person is complimenting the baby, the person thinks the babyâ€™s cute,â€ AragÃ³n said. â€œAll these things are positive, but those two different dimorphous expressions send very different signals about how you want to interact with that baby.â€
â€œThis ability to communicate is really important, because if you understand that somebody wants to interact in a very riled-up way with your baby, you could intervene as the mom and say, â€˜No, not right now, theyâ€™re going down for their nap soon,â€™â€ she added.
Interestingly, AragÃ³n and her team also found that people who experience cute aggression are more likely to express emotion in a dimorphous manner across a variety of emotionally charged situations. In other words, those who want to pinch a babyâ€™s chubby cheeks tend to be the type to cry at weddings, too.
Katherine Stavropoulos, a clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of California, Riverside, has also studied cute aggression. As it happens, her path to this line of research was a funny one. She primarily studies brain activity in kids with and without autism, with a focus on the reward system. Years ago, after AragÃ³nâ€™s research began going viral, BuzzFeed (HuffPostâ€™s parent company) published a listicle about the signs you experience cute aggression. One of Stavropoulosâ€™ colleagues saw it and â€• knowing her desire to squish round, fluffy animals â€• sent her the link.
â€œThey were like, â€˜Oh my gosh, itâ€™s you! This explains your weirdness with cute round animals.â€™ And I was like, â€˜Oh my gosh,â€™â€ Stavropoulos said.
That sparked a legitimate interest in the subject.
â€œI thought to myself, â€˜Wait a second. I think this actually might have something to do with the reward system in the brain,â€™â€ she said. â€œThis isnâ€™t just like a funny phenomenon that thereâ€™s finally a name for, and Iâ€™m not just a freakish weirdo. Which I think is everyoneâ€™s reaction who feels this way, is like, â€˜I didnâ€™t know it had a name. I thought I was just weird.â€™â€
Stavropoulos co-authored a study, published in 2018, that looked at what happens in the brain when you feel cute aggression. They ultimately found that the phenomenon involves both the brainâ€™s emotional system and its reward system, which is responsible for feelings of wanting and pleasure.
In the study, participants looked at images of â€œcuteâ€ and â€œless cuteâ€ babies (the same ones AragÃ³n used in her study), and â€œcuteâ€ and â€œless cuteâ€ animals (i.e., baby animals vs. adult animals). After viewing the photos, the participants rated how strongly they agreed with statements expressing cute aggression (e.g.â€œItâ€™s so cute I want to squeeze it!â€) and feelings of overwhelm (â€œItâ€™s so cute I canâ€™t handle itâ€), among others. Electrode caps measured electrical activity in different parts of the participantsâ€™ brains.
â€œThe people that rated agreeing with the feeling of, â€˜Itâ€™s so cute, I want to squeeze it,â€™ were the people with the most reward-related brain activity,â€ Stavropoulos said.
Stavropoulos hopes to continue research in this area to see how people with autism and postpartum depression experience cute aggression, and what differences might exist between people who have kids or pets and people who donâ€™t. For example, what if cat owners felt more cute aggression toward kittens, and parents (or people who want to have children) felt more cute aggression toward babies, than those without kids did?
â€œItâ€™s interesting to me, the role that that experience could play in cute aggression or, just in general, our development of these overwhelming emotions,â€ Stavropoulos said.