Cute aggression is a particularly strange phenomenon. When we see something so cute, or even think about it – like a baby kitten, stumbling across the floor – we first experience a tsunami of positivity, an overwhelming accumulation of fuzzy happiness. Then, somewhat perplexingly, this feeling sometimes coexists with the urge to squeeze the kitten to death. This effect is recognized by scientists, and a study published earlier this year in the journal Psychological Science explains that this secondary, negative response may be trying to counteract the out-of-control positive one.
The research group from Yale University coined the term “cute aggression,” and it is thought to belong to one of a series of paradoxical combinations of positive and negative emotions, which also include nervous laughter or tears of joy. These are known as “dimorphous expressions.”
Cute aggression was first scientifically documented by Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragon in 2012. In their experiment 109 participants were asked to hold bubble wrap as a slideshow of animals with funny, cute or neutral expressions was shown. Although an uptick in bubble popping was expected for the cute animals, the researchers found that the participants went a little bonkers, popping far more bubbles than the other two groups.
Interestingly enough, this feeling is amplified when the cute animals in question aren’t physically accessible. The same effect applies to pictures of babies, with further studies indicating that the younger and cuter the babies look, the greater the urge of the participants to experience both a positive emotion – explaining how they want to look after it – and an aggressive feeling, describing the urge to want to pinch its cheeks.
Image credit: We can't handle this. ANURAK PONGPATIMET/Shutterstock
For the latest study, several hundred participants were initially asked about a variety of dimorphous expressions, involving both cute (seeing baby kittens) and non-cute stimuli (crying during a piece of happy music), and asked to record how powerful each emotion was during these types of events.
For example, the participants had to decide whether or not they were the type of person that upon seeing something cute they often “clenched their hands into fists.” This allowed the researchers to produce a numerical scale of dimorphous expression. The study then gave participants the baby test, which again showed that more infantile babies produced the most extreme cute aggressive response.
A puzzle unrelated to cute babies was then undertaken by the participants, before they took the baby test again. Although the same cute aggression effect was seen, those that initially showed the most aggression also showed the greatest immediate post-exposure decline in positive emotions. Essentially, those with the more aggressive response were able to more rapidly counteract their overwhelming positive emotional cascade.
But why would anyone want to temper this explosion of happiness? The authors think that the negative emotion is designed to “support the immediate well-being of the [participant].” Any emotional spike uses up considerable energy, so our brains have to be able to regulate their own emotional responses.
Anna Brooks, a senior lecturer in cognitive neuroscience from Southern Cross University, told Vice that “The ability to regulate one's strength of emotional response is highly adaptive: It stops us from investing too much energy into things.”
So if you see a puppy and want to squash it to pieces, don’t worry, you’re perfectly normal – it’s just your brain trying to stop itself exploding.