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February 1, 2013 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Sensory Overload: The Impulse of "Cute Aggression"

By Anne Christen More Blogs by This Author

Just Wanna Squeeze 'Em

I’m sure I’m not alone in saying this, but I love puppies, kittens, and babies. I love chubby cheeks, especially the idea of pinching them, and am not shy when it comes to expressing these sentiments. In fact, I can’t count the number of times I’ve said, “Get in my belly” (not unlike a certain character from the Austin Powers movies). With my own dog, I’ve been known to say more than once, “I’m going to eat you on a slice of bread with cheese and lettuce.”

Is this behavior wrong? Perhaps, but it’s also quite normal, according to researchers. Rebecca Dyer, a graduate student in psychology at Yale University, presented a study to the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology that examined extreme responses to cuteness. She believes such behavior is “almost a sense of lost control.” And now, the desire to eat something because it’s absolutely adorable is called "cute aggression."

A Counterintuitive Desire?

In psychology and other social and behavioral sciences, aggression refers to behavior that is intended to cause harm or pain. Aggression can be either physical or verbal, and behavior is labeled as such even if it does not succeed in hurting someone. Seen from this angle, cute aggression seems absurd, since people should want to treat something that’s cute with gentle love.

Aggression of all types originates in the brain, along with every other emotion we experience. Two specific areas that regulate or affect aggression are the amygdala and hypothalamus. Stimulation of the former results in augmented aggressive behavior, but lesions of this area greatly reduce one’s competitive drive and aggression. The latter, meanwhile, is believed to regulate aggression.

So does a person with “cute aggression” want to hurt that which they find so irresistible? Researchers say no, because this response comes from the “high positive-affect” produced by a cute image or person, in which you become highly excited. In Dyer’s studies of this affect, she noticed that cute images caused people to react more often than those pictures that were just funny or neutral. However, the resulting aggression is a completely harmless. If anything, we overreact emotionally to downplay and regulate our urge toward negativity.

Other Possibilities

Cute aggression may stem from other factors as well. For instance, it’s possible that seeing a doe-eyed baby or furry pup triggers our instinct to care for that creature. But because this response even happens with photos, and since in real life we might not be able to care for a creature as much as we want, this urge might be frustrated. This, in turn, could lead to aggression.

Or the reason might not be specific to cuteness. Many overwhelmingly positive emotions look negative, such as when a person cries with happiness. Such high levels of emotion may simply be overwhelming and trigger a tangible response that appears aggressive.

And for those wondering whether “cuteness” can be scientifically measured, it apparently can. Independent research on what makes something cute has pinpointed these characteristics as necessary: big eyes, big cheeks, and a big forehead. That’s why baby pandas are thought to be one of the most adorable creatures on the planet. So the next time you feel the urge to eat or squeeze a puppy, just say so aloud and then smile - It’s completely normal!


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