Have you ever looked at a puppy and said, “You’re so cute, I just want to eat you” (you know, in your best high-pitched dog mom voice)? Or felt the need to pinch a baby’s cheeks because they’re just so freaking precious? Yep, us too, and there’s actually a name for this intense response to adorableness. It’s called cute aggression.
Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside, also wondered why we experience cute aggression. So she conducted a study to help better understand the phenomenon. The results were recently published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
Stavropoulos measured how neurons in the brain fire in response to external stimuli, like photos of super cute (and less cute) animals and babies. If you’re wondering how she designated some as cuter than others, she chose photos of young animals (very cute) and adult animals (less cute). For the babies, she digitally enlarged some of their facial features, like their eyes, cheeks, and foreheads, to make them appear cuter.
She then recruited 54 participants aged 18 to 40 and had them wear caps lined with electrodes. While wearing the caps, participants looked at four blocks of photographs divided into different categories: cute (enhanced) human babies, less cute (non-enhanced) human babies, cute (baby) animals, and cute (adult) animals.
After looking at each block of photos on a computer screen, the participants were shown a set of statements and asked to rate how much they agreed with them. The statements were designed to assess how cute participants found each block of photos (which the study calls "appraisal") and how much cute aggression they felt in response. They also rated how overwhelmed they felt and whether they had a desire to take care of the animals and babies in the photos.
As you might have guessed, participants self-reported stronger feelings of appraisal, cute aggression, being overwhelmed, and caretaking toward cute (baby) animals than toward less-cute (adult) animals. But surprisingly, the same pattern didn’t hold true for the photos of human babies. No significant differences were observed between how participants rated the cute (enhanced) and less cute (non-enhanced) human babies.
Using electrophysiology, Stavropoulos also measured participant’s brain activity before, during, and after viewing the photos. She found cute aggression to be related to neural mechanisms of emotional salience and reward processing, which means both the brain’s emotion system and reward system are at work when you feel the need to hold an adorable puppy up to your mouth and swallow him whole.
“Cute aggression appears to be a complex and multi-faceted emotional response that likely serves to mediate strong emotional responses and allow caretaking to occur,” the study states.
These results are thought to be the first to confirm a neural basis for cute aggression. “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 told UC Riverside News. “This is an exciting finding, as it confirms our original hypothesis that the reward system is involved in people’s experiences of cute aggression.”
Another interesting finding: There also seems to be a direct relationship between how much cute aggression someone experiences and how overwhelmed the person is feeling.
“Essentially, for people who tend to experience the feeling of ‘not being able to take how cute something is,’ cute aggression happens,” Stavropoulos said. “Our study seems to underscore the idea that cute aggression is the brain’s way of ‘bringing us back down’ by mediating our feelings of being overwhelmed.”
She said that mediation may have been an evolutionary adaptation ensuring that people take care of young creatures they found particularly cute.
“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.”
So next time you look at one of your pets (or your baby) and feel the urge to squeeze them as tight as you can and press your face into their fur or skin, find some comfort in the fact that there’s actually a purpose behind what you're feeling. No, you don’t actually want to squeeze your puppy until he pops. Somewhere deep in your brain, nature is making sure you take care of him as best you can.
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