That Urge to Squeeze Cute Things Has a Name, It’s Called Cute Aggression

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In the 1980s, Koko had a clear message for the humans at The Gorilla Foundation in California. Koko, a western lowland gorilla, was the first gorilla to communicate through sign language. She used her newly acquired skills to let her people know she wanted a pet cat.

Koko was soon given a kitten, whom she named All Ball, and cuddled closely. Photos of Koko squeezing her little cat were published around the world. The little grey kitty’s head was barely visible in Koko’s loving arms.

Koko wasn’t alone in her desire to hold a cute creature close. Many people also want to squeeze a cute animal or an adorable baby. Scientists call it “cute aggression.” In the past decades, research in the emotional sciences has helped scientists learn why people have this unexpected response.

What Is Cute Aggression?

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Some people see something cute and want to hold it, squeeze it tight, and call it George. Others want to take an adorable paw or floppy ear and pretend to eat it. Some may even pantomime chomping on the adorable creature while saying, ‘nom, nom, nom.’ But if we love something, why would we act like we’re hurting it? 

Cute aggression is a type of dimorphous expression, an emotional response in which a person experiences more than one emotion at the same time.

The concept was first introduced in 2000 as part of a model explaining the progression of emotions. It begins with a stimulus, say your dog being cute and sitting with her paws crossed. This prompts an emotional experience, perhaps feeling overwhelmed by cuteness, and then an expressive behavior.

With dimorphous expressions, the person experiences more than one expressive behavior. They may show delight with the cuteness but then also announce to the dog that their paws are so cute they just want to eat them. 

Read More: How Do Different Emotions Manifest In The Body?

Researching Cute Aggression

It makes sense that adorable little puppy paws can create delight. But having an urge to munch on them feels like a violent impulse that doesn’t belong in the moment. Researchers theorize that dimorphous reactions occur as a way to regulate emotions when a person becomes overwhelmed. In recent years, scientists have been able to use technology to determine the neural mechanisms that occur during cute aggression. 

Neuroscientist Katherine Meltzoff first decided to study cute aggression after a friend sent her a web article that humorously listed how people could self-diagnose themselves as having cute aggression.

“I literally wondered, from my perspective as a neuroscientist, what is happening in the brain? What emotions are responsible for this?” says Meltzoff, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside. 

Read More: Oxytocin’s Effects Aren’t Just About Love

Where Does Cute Aggression Come From?   

(Credit: Iuliia Zavalishina/Getty Images)

In a 2018 study in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, Meltzoff and her co-author sought to understand the neural mechanisms associated with cute aggression.

The team recruited 54 college students with ages between 18 and 40, and connected them to an electroencephalogram (EEG). The participants then looked at four sets of images. Two sets featured cute babies and baby animals. Two sets displayed “less cute” babies and adult animals. (Note: The less cute pictures were computer-generated, not pictures of actual babies that the researchers had deemed less adorable.)

The participants also completed questionnaires, including questions about their awareness of how they react to certain stimuli. 

Reward Positivity

With the EEG, the researchers could measure electrical activity within milliseconds of it occurring. They found greater activity after images of cute animals were displayed. 

People who had greater activity after seeing cute kitties were more likely to report having a dimorphous reaction. Similarly, the researchers saw a “significant correlation” between the reward positivity amplitude of the adorable animals and reports of cute aggression in real life.

Neurologically, Meltzoff says the findings suggest that cute aggression involves both the emotion and reward systems. 

Overwhelmed with Emotion

The study also found that people who are more likely to become overwhelmed with emotions are more likely to experience cute aggression.

“If you are someone who sees something and thinks, ‘Oh, that’s cute,’ but you don’t feel overwhelmed, you are less likely to feel cute aggression,” Meltzoff says. “But if you are someone who feels overwhelmed, that is predictive of cute aggression.”

For those that get so overwhelmed by a cute animal and want to hold it “Koko style,” the current theory with dimorphous emotions is that the second emotion somehow helps to regulate the overwhelming feelings and even calms the person down. Somehow, announcing that you are going to eat those floppy ears (nom, nom, nom) because they are just too cute helps regulate the overwhelming response to adorableness.

Read More: Why Are We Addicted to Love?

Why Do We Get Cute Aggression?

Scientists are still exploring the possibility that dimorphous reactions help regulate emotions. Meltzoff says she would also like to know more about how cute aggression develops and if it’s based on experience.

If a person, for example, has never had children and only had dogs, are they more likely to show cute aggression towards puppies as opposed to babies?  

Meltzoff says she suspects that cute aggression is not an emotion a person is born with.

“It’s way too complicated of an emotion,” she says.

Read More: Uncovering the Mystery of Why Dogs Might Look Like Their Owners

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