Sometimes, seeing a cute baby or a soft little pupper can really make you feel like a serial killer. You know what we mean? Those big eyes; those tiny paws; that round belly – doesn't it just make you want to crush the lil thing into a near infinitely dense ball of pure squee?
Don't worry: you're not alone – and you're not a secret psychopath. This is a normal phenomenon, known to psychologists as “cute aggression”.
“[You] just have this flash of thinking: ‘I want to crush it’ or ‘I want to squeeze it until pops’ or ‘I want to punch it,’” Katherine Stavropoulos, now an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, told NPR back in 2018.
“When people feel this way, it's with no desire to cause harm,” she explained. “[People think] ‘this is weird; I'm probably the only one who feels this way. I don't want to hurt it. I just want to eat it.’”
Don’t be surprised if that sounds familiar: about half of us experience those kinds of thoughts sometimes, Stavropoulos said. In fact, it’s so common that other languages have dedicated words for the phenomenon – in Tagalog, for example, they have the term gigil, defined as “the trembling or gritting of the teeth in response to a situation that overwhelms your self-control[;]… an irresistible urge to squeeze something cute.”
In psychological terms, it’s what’s called a “dimorphous expression” – that is, when your external actions don’t match what you’re feeling inside. You can compare it to crying with laughter or punching the air in happiness – both everyday reactions to emotions which, when you think about it, don’t make much sense, actually.
“We think that these dimorphous expressions, which come about only, it seems, in pretty intense emotional experiences, send a lot of information to onlookers as to what that person's emotional motivational state is,” said Oriana Aragón, a psychologist who was part of the Yale team that gave cute aggression its name back in 2015. She uses the example of a stranger smiling at your puppy in the street: that simple expression “won’t tell you how that person is feeling, if they want to go and rile it up or if they want to just be gentle,” she told the BBC. “It doesn't give you all the information.”
But what causes this feeling of innocent aggression towards cute things? Well, the Tagalog definition kind of has it: it’s the result of getting emotionally overwhelmed. It’s a hypothesis backed up by Stavropoulos, who led a study into the phenomenon back in December 2018. Her team looked at the brain’s responses to more than 100 images of humans and animals – some had been decuteified, while others had had their adorability factor increased by way of exaggerated dimples, enlarged eyes, scrunched noses, that kind of thing.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, participants’ brains showed more activity when they were looking at the cuter images – but what was more interesting was precisely where that activity was being seen. When the subject under the EEG felt more cute aggression, there were two particular areas of the brain that lit up: the emotion center, which responded to the cuteness initially, but also the reward center.
So cute aggression is “not just reward,” Stavropoulos told NPR. “And it's not just emotion. Both systems in the brain are involved in this experience of cute aggression.”
That’s why some experts think cute aggression is a kind of “emergency brake” for our emotions. Seeing something so cute sends our positive emotions skyrocketing, which, the theory goes, triggers our brains to release some more negative impulses in response – it’s a sort of emotional counterweight. In fact, aggression isn’t the only emotion that our body can use to rein in overwhelming cuteness like this: another common response to something adorable is to react almost with sadness, pouting and frowning and making a little whimpery “aww!” noise – it’s the same phenomenon.
While we don’t know if people without this cute aggression response have found other ways to cope with things that are just too cute to exist – or if they simply don’t feel emotions as intensely as those who do – one thing’s for sure. If you’ve ever thought something was so cute you wanted to gobble it up, or wanted to just squish a little baby into pieces for being so adorable, you’re not alone.
“It could possibly be that somehow these expressions help us to just sort of get it out and come down off that baby high a little faster,” Aragón told NPR. “People who, you know, want to pinch the babies’ cheeks and growl at the baby are also people who are more likely to cry at the wedding or cry when the baby's born or have nervous laughter.”