Picture a puppy: floppy ears, fluffy fur, big eyes, and a cute little nose that you could just … boop. If you suddenly found yourself wanting to squish the tiny thing, or realized you were clenching your jaws and fists as you thought about it, then it's very likely you have experienced what neuroscientists call cute aggression.
You’re not alone—scientists estimate that 50 to 60 percent of people feel the urge to squeeze, bite, or crush things they find extra-cute. The Tagalog language even has a word for it: gigil. But while cute aggression might transcend borders, it was only recognized and named by Western science in 2012.
Yale doctoral students Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragón were the first to study the phenomenon in a scientific experiment in 2014 [PDF]. They handed out bubble wrap sheets to 109 participants, and showed them images of different animals, categorized as neutral, funny, or cute-looking, and recorded their reactions. They discovered that all participants would experience an uptick in brain activity when shown extra-cute pets, though only some of them would start aggressively popping the bubble wrap.
Dyer and Aragón categorized this reaction as a form of dimorphous expression, a term they coined to refer to the apparent dissonance that some people tend to exhibit between the feeling they are experiencing and the way their bodies react.
Cute aggression isn't the only kind of dimorphous expression. Plenty of us will cry during a particularly joyous time, make gestures of pain when eating a heavenly sweet, scream as if we were terrified when we finally get to see someone we have missed for a long time, or maniacally laugh when feeling intense anger or frustration. All of these weird, puzzling reactions are forms of dimorphous expression.
Katherine Stavropoulos, an experimental psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, says aggression involves both the brain's emotion and reward systems, the latter being the circuit responsible for causing feelings of pleasure when it is "switched on" by something we enjoy. In a follow-up study to Dyer’s and Aragón’s research on cute aggression, she recorded the electrical activity in the brains of participants who were shown images of super-cute animals and babies. Some of the images had been modified to score higher in the Kinderschema, or baby schema, the set of facial and body features that determine how “cute” babies and animals (or even objects) look. She discovered that cute aggression correlated with an uptick in the brain's reward system, which she believes might suggest an attempt by the body to balance intense emotions.
“It seems as though people who experience cute aggression tend to feel overwhelmed by the strength of their emotions towards the cute thing, whereas people who don't experience it … just don't,” she tells Mental Floss. This might suggest that cute aggression could be an involuntary response to our emotions going haywire, an attempt to regulate these overwhelming sensations. “There was even a behavioral study suggesting that cute aggression helped people calm down and feel less overwhelmed,” Stavropoulos says.
While the science behind cute aggression and other types of dimorphous expression is still developing, much research has gone into cuteness. Studies have shown that perceiving a baby or animal as cute does motivate caregiving. If we're overwhelmed by the unbearable adorableness of a baby or puppy, however, our impulse to take care of it might be overridden by our own emotions. This is when cute aggression might emerge. Stavropoulos believes this isn't far-fetched. “There is a theory that cute aggression might help us regulate our emotions, which would, in turn, help us get back to taking care of the very cute thing that might need our help,” she says.
Should we be concerned by our desire to just smoosh that fluffy little puppy until it cries for mercy? Stavropoulos doesn't think so. She points out that cute aggression and true aggression are completely different things. “When someone experiences cute aggression, they do not want to cause harm to the animal or baby. In fact, they usually want to protect or care for the cute animal or baby,” she says. People actually seem to experience cute aggression much more intensely when they are unable to touch the animal or baby that is triggering the reaction, leading them to want to pet, hold, or carry the adorable thing.
Aragón suggests cute aggression might be a form of communication rather than caregiving. She explains that, despite how puzzling dimorphous expressions might seem, humans are extremely efficient at figuring out the true intention behind them. Grabbing our belly and making expressions of pain when eating might, for example, help indicate our intention to keep eating. Similarly, crying when feeling overwhelmed with happiness could signal to others that we need a moment to recover from intense emotions. Going in to pinch a baby’s cheeks tells the parent you’re about to engage with her child, Aragón told BrainFacts.org.
Whatever the reason, the next time you want to squeeze that smiley baby hippo you see on Instagram or eat that floppy-eared pupper you meet in the park, you'll know it's your brain acknowledging that it's just too cute.