Why do we like to squeeze cute things?
Imagine a puppy: floppy ears, fluffy fur, big eyes, and a cute little nose that you could just… boo. If you suddenly find yourself wanting to crush the little thing, or find yourself clenching your jaws and fists at the thought of it, chances are you’ve suffered what neuroscientists call a cute assault.
You’re not alone: Scientists estimate that 50-60% of people feel the need to squeeze, bite, or crush things they find very cute. The Tagalog language even has a word for it: gigil. But while the cute aggressiveness could transcend borders, it was only recognized and named by Western science in 2012.
Yale PhD students Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragón were the first to study the phenomenon in a science experiment in 2014 [PDF]. They distributed sheets of bubble wrap to 109 participants and showed them pictures of different animals, classified as neutral, funny or cute, and recorded their reactions. They found that all of the participants would experience an increase in brain activity when showing extra-cute pets, although only some of them began to aggressively pop the bubble wrap.
Dyer and Aragón classified this reaction as a form of dimorphic expression, a term they coined to refer to the apparent dissonance that some people tend to exhibit between the feeling they feel and the way their body reacts.
Cute aggression isn’t the only type of dimorphic expression. Many of us will cry during a particularly happy time, make gestures of pain while eating a heavenly candy, scream like we’re terrified when we finally see someone we’ve long missed, or laugh maniacally when we feel intense anger or frustration. All of these weird and confusing reactions are forms of dimorphic expression.
Katherine Stavropoulos, an experimental psychologist at the University of California at Riverside, says aggression involves both the emotional and reward systems of the brain, the latter being the circuit responsible for feelings of pleasure when it is “engaged. With something we like. In a follow-up study of Dyer and Aragón’s research into cute aggression, she recorded electrical activity in the brains of participants who were shown pictures of super cute animals and babies. Some images have been edited to achieve a higher score in the Kinderschema, or baby pattern, the set of facial and body characteristics that determine how “cute” babies and animals (or even objects) look. She found that cute aggression correlated with an increase in the brain’s reward system, which she said could suggest the body’s attempt to balance intense emotions.
“It seems that people who experience cute mugging tend to feel overwhelmed by the strength of their emotions towards the cute thing, while people who don’t… just don’t,” he said. she told Mental Floss. This could suggest that cute aggression could be an involuntary response to our emotions going haywire, an attempt to regulate those overwhelming feelings. “There was even a behavioral study suggesting that cute aggression helped people calm down and feel less overwhelmed,” says Stavropoulos.
While the science behind cute aggression and other types of dimorphic expression is still in development, a lot of research has been devoted to cuteness. Studies have shown that perceiving a baby or animal as cute motivates care. However, if we are overwhelmed by the unbearable adoration of a baby or puppy, our urge to care for them might be overruled by our own emotions. This is when cute aggression might emerge. Stavropoulos thinks that is no exaggeration. “There is a theory that a cute aggression might help us regulate our emotions, which in turn helps us take care of the very cute thing that might need our help,” she says.
Should we be concerned about our desire to kiss this fluffy little puppy until he cries out for mercy? Stavropoulos does not think so. She points out that cute aggressiveness and true aggression are completely different things. “When someone gets a cute assault, they don’t want to harm the animal or the baby. In fact, they usually want to protect or take care of the cute animal or baby, ”she says. People actually seem to feel a cute aggression much more intensely when they are unable to touch the animal or baby that triggers the reaction, causing them to want to stroke, hold, or carry the adorable thing.
Aragón suggests that cute aggression could be a form of communication rather than healing. She explains that, despite how confusing dimorphic expressions can seem, humans are extremely good at figuring out the true intention behind them. Grabbing our stomachs and expressing pain while eating can, for example, help indicate our intention to continue eating. Likewise, crying when we are overwhelmed with happiness might signal to others that we need a moment to recover from intense emotions. Entering to pinch a baby’s cheeks signals the parent that you are about to engage with their child, Aragón told BrainFacts.org.
Whatever the reason, the next time you want to hug that smiling baby hippo you see on Instagram or eat that floppy-eared puppy you meet in the park, you’ll know it’s your brain that recognizes it’s just too cute.