WASHINGTON (CIRCA) — Have you ever seen something cute and thought, “I want to crush it,“ or “I want to squeeze it until pops,” or “I want to punch it?” If so, you may suffer from "cute aggression," according to a study reported on by NPR.
This feeling could be an involuntary response to being overwhelmed by a positive emotion or "cuteness."
The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, is the first to support the idea that there could be a neural basis for cute aggression.
Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside, and a licensed clinical psychologist, and Laura Alba, a UC Riverside doctoral student, recruited 54 study participants ranging in ages from 18 to 40.
Participants wore caps outfitted with electrodes. They then looked at four blocks of 32 photographs divided into categories and were asked to judge each photo and describe their feelings. Some photos included infants and older adults, others baby animals and adult animals. Certain photos were edited to show more exaggerated signs of “cuteness,” such as big eyes and cheeks.
The study found that for the entire group of participants, cuter creatures triggered brain activity in both the emotion and reward systems.
Stavropoulos said she first heard the term “cute aggression” after a team of Yale University psychologists released research related to the phenomenon in 2015.
“The Yale researchers initially found that people reported feeling cute aggression more in response to baby animals versus adult animals,” Stavropoulos said. “But even beyond that, people reported feeling cute aggression more in response to the picture of human babies that had been digitally enhanced to appear more infantile, and therefore ‘more cute,’ by enlarging features like their eyes, cheeks and foreheads.”
According to a news release from UC Riverside, based on the neural activity she observed in participants who experienced cute aggression, Stavropoulos’ findings offer evidence of both the brain’s reward and emotion systems being involved in the phenomenon.
“There was an especially strong correlation between ratings of cute aggression experienced toward cute animals and the reward response in the brain toward cute animals,” Stavropoulos said in the release. “This is an exciting finding, as it confirms our original hypothesis that the reward system is involved in people’s experiences of cute aggression.”
Stavropoulos said another result of the study supports prior theories: The relationship between how cute something is and how much cute aggression someone experiences toward it appears to be tied to how overwhelmed that person is feeling.
“Essentially, for people who tend to experience the feeling of ‘not being able to take how cute something is,’ cute aggression happens,” Stavropoulos 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.”
Stavropoulos hopes to study the neural basis of cute aggression in a variety of populations and groups, such as mothers with postpartum depression, people with an autism spectrum disorder and participants with and without babies or pets.