When you see a tiny baby or animal, do you ever get the urge to squeeze something? You may be one of many people who experience cute aggression.
Playful kittens, bouncy puppies, floppy-eared bunnies, and giggly babies: What do they all share that makes them so darned cute? Large eyes, small mouth, a wee button nose, and disproportionately large feet resulting in a clumsy gait. Simply writing this is giving me that "squeeeee" feeling.
Upon seeing an adorable puppy, flopping around on the carpet with its new chew-toy, people often respond with excitement. I myself ball my fists, and bring my hands up to my chest as if I were about to fight that puppy — an unusually violent reaction to seeing something I actually find appealing.
This somewhat oxymoronic response was named “cute aggression” by psychologist Oriana Aragón and her colleagues in 2013. Also known as playful aggression, this is an example of a dimorphous display of emotion, when two seemingly opposite emotions exist in tandem (from Greek, “di” meaning twice and “morph” meaning form). The underlying psychology here is similar to when we experience an incredibly happy occasion that leaves us in tears, like your mother blubbering at your wedding: the emotional expression is not representative of the experience. Attending an interview for your dream job and maniacally laughing because you’re too nervous to string a sentence together is also considered a dimorphous display of emotion.
Although the term "cute aggression" did not exist in the English language until recently, many other languages do have words to describe these strangely aggressive feelings towards something cute. In Bahasa Indonesian, "gemas" translates into English as "something so cute you want to do violence to it". The Czech word "muchlovat" means the desire to squeeze a cute person. In the Tagalog language, spoken in the Philippines, “gigil” describes the gritting of your teeth and the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute. These translations all capture that "sqeeeeee" feeling better than any word I know.
The original explanation for this aggressive feeling was protection. It was believed that seeing the ‘babyish’ characteristics of a young human or animal stimulated reward circuits in our brain, and that we are driven to provide care and protection. The more baby-like the features, the greater the instinct to protect.
Indeed, human babies are so dependent on parental care that there would have once been massive evolutionary pressure to keep them safe; roly-poly bundles that can’t even hold their own heads up are in danger of becoming something else's lunch. A hard-wired response to protect babies would have been the difference between successfully raising a child and your genetic line dying out. The aggressive behaviour is not considered to be directed towards the cute baby, but merely a response to seeing them.
Aragón and her colleagues suspected that there was more to this emotional response. They asked why we felt this aggression, and whether it was an adaptation for protection, something a bit more complicated, or perhaps a bit of both.
In a 2015 paper, the researchers tested whether cute aggression is an expression of care or a dimorphic response to cute beings. They surveyed participants about various dimorphic expressions and whether they had ever experienced any of them — for example, if they had ever been so happy that they cried, or so angry that they laughed. Some of these questions specifically asked the participants what urges they might have if they were holding a baby: for example, “If I am holding an extremely cute baby, I have the urge to squeeze his or her little fat legs”. Participants then looked at images of babies, some of which were depicted as more infantile than others. They were asked whether they felt overwhelmed with any particular emotions, and which images made them feel the most aggressive urges.
The data showed that the more infantile the characteristics displayed by babies in photographs, the more people expressed care and aggression simultaneously. Intriguingly, those of us more prone to crying in happiness, or giggling when nervous, are also more likely to want to squeeze and pinch cute babies and animals.
In a second experiment, participants once again viewed images of babies with varying infantile characteristics. They then answered questions about how they felt after seeing each image and how quickly they felt they returned to their pre-viewing emotional state. Participants who displayed the greatest expressions of aggression returned to their baseline emotional state quicker than others.
The researchers believe that this paradoxical display of emotion allows us to regain some control over our feelings when they become unmanageable. If we were to feel intense emotions for long periods of time — such as nervousness experienced at a job interview, anger felt during an argument, or even joy at a wedding — there would be negative consequences for our health. By balancing the emotion with an opposite response, we can recover more quickly from the emotional experience.
So if you find yourself with urges to squeeze, nibble, and pinch adorable critters, you might be suffering from chronic cute aggression. But don’t despair — it’s a common response to cuteness, and may actually be doing you some good.
Edited by Andrew Katsis and Sara Paradowski