Cute aggression: The reason we want to squeeze adorable babies

There's a reason why we want to pinch those baby cheeks
There's a reason why we want to pinch those baby cheeks Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

"OMG he's so cute I just want to squeeeeze/pinch/bite him!"

Have you ever found yourself so overcome by the cuteness of a baby or small animal that you've effectively threatened some form of violence towards them? You're not alone. As it turns out, there's even a scientific term for it: "cute aggression" - and an interesting reason for the odd behaviour, too.

A new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience, found that cute aggression, defined as "the urge some people get to squeeze, crush, or bite cute things, albeit without any desire to cause harm," actually helps us manage overwhelming emotions in the face of TOO MUCH CUTE, and propels us into "caretaking" mode.

As part of the research, participants were shown images of baby humans and baby animals, while wearing EEG caps. The team wanted to examine not just the concept of "cute aggression" which was coined by Yale Psychologists back in 2013, but what happens in the brain when we experience it, too.

Participants answered questions about what the researchers termed "playful aggression" - had they ever said any of the following expressions?

  • "It's so cute I want to pinch it!"
  • "it's so cute I want to squeeze it!"
  • "it's so cute I want to bite it!" 

Afterwards, they indicated whether they had wanted to do the following, or had actually done any of the following:

  • Pinched a cute animal?
  • Pinched a cute baby or child?
  • Squeezed a cute animal?
  • Squeezed a cute baby or child?
  • Bitten a cute animal?
  • Bitten a cute baby or child?

As it it turns out we're quite the aggressive lot. When they analysed the results, the authors found that 74 per cent of participants had squeezed a cute baby animal, while 60 per cent had squeezed a baby or child. For 16 per cent, cute aggression had driven them to bite an animal, while 12 per cent had bitten - yes bitten - a cute child.

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According to lead author Katherine Stavropoulos of the University of California, Riverside, the results also showed that whether or not someone experiences the aggressive urge is related to how overwhelmed they are in the face of cuteness.

"For people who tend to experience the feeling of 'not being able to take how cute something is,' cute aggression happens," she said. "Our study seems to underscore the idea that cute aggression is the brain's way of 'bringing us back down' by mediating our feelings of being overwhelmed."

But while looking at photos of bubs in the lab is one thing, there's a pretty solid reason as to why the results are important in real world terms.

"If you find yourself incapacitated by how cute a baby is — so much so that you simply can't take care of it — that baby is going to starve," Ms Stavropoulos said. "Cute aggression may serve as a tempering mechanism that allows us to function and actually take care of something we might first perceive as overwhelmingly cute."

But apart from explaining a slightly quirky phenomenon, what else could the results tell us?  Ms Stavropoulos now intends to extend her research to other groups such as mothers with postnatal depression, people with autism spectrum disorder, and individuals with and without babies or pets.

"I think if you have a child and you're looking at pictures of cute babies, you might exhibit more cute aggression and stronger neural reactions," she says. "The same could be true for people who have pets and are looking at pictures of cute puppies or other small animals."