If you have ever said something along the lines of “That kitten is so cute I could eat it” or felt the desire to squeeze a puppy really hard, you have experienced something psychologists call “cute aggression”.
Although it may seem a tad psychopathic to want to hug things to death you can rest assured that the impulse well-documented and totally normal.
But before we get into that we’ll start with another question: What is cuteness?
In the 1940s, ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed the term ‘Kindchenschema’ (baby schema) to describe the set of infantile features that we perceive as cute.
Lorenz noted that features such as a large head, round face and big eyes are perceived as cute, and that we have evolved this appreciation in order to motivate nurturing and caretaking behaviour toward our young.
It’s no coincidence that Disney and anime characters are drawn in a certain way. As humans, it turns out we are indeed suckers for the baby schema, with studies showing that cuteness will inspire us to take greater care of things.
OK, so then why do we also have the occasional urge to prod, poke or squeeze these adorable little critters?
The first real study of the phenomenon came out in 2013 when researchers presented their findings at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference.
Oriana Aragon and Rebecca Dyer, graduate psychology students at Yale University, led the study. They showed participants slides of cute, funny or normal animal photographs. As the participants watched, they held bubble wrap and were instructed to pop as many bubbles as they wanted to.
The researchers found that people watching the cute slide show popped significantly more bubbles than those viewing the funny or control pictures, which led to the creation of the term “cute aggression”.
At the time, Live Science reported that Dyer and her colleagues were unsure why cuteness seemed to trigger aggression, but proposed that it might be linked to how we deal with extremely positive emotions.
Since 2013, we haven’t really gotten much further in explaining why it happens. Writing for Vice in 2015, Elfy Scott spoke to Anna Brooks, a senior lecturer in cognitive neuroscience from Southern Cross University.
According to Brooks, the science behind cute aggression is still “reasonably murky” but the current theory is that it comes down to cross-wiring in the brain.
“The brain’s mesocorticolimbic system mediates the response to cuteness,” Brooks said. “Dopamine is released, and that makes us feel good. But interestingly, this process also is involved when we act out on aggressive tendencies. It’s possible that there’s some cross-wiring of the response to cuteness and aggression being mediated by dopamine release.”
Elfy asked Brooks why we might be cross-wired in this way and Brooks said that there is an evolutionary explanation: as the human brain uses vast amounts of energy, especially when we are feeling emotional, it may try modulating its emotional responses.
The result is a “dimorphous expression”, an opposing emotion that jumps in and basically tells us to move along and not waste too much energy. It may also happen in the reverse too, for example when people cry “tears of joy” during a happy event or an uplifting moment in a movie.
In other words, dimorphous expressions – or cute aggressions – are probably just our bodies’ way of conserving resources and regulating emotions.