It was always slightly creepy to hear that old lady at church say that someone’s baby was ‘so cute (she) just wanted to eat her up’. Or why that one uncle always wanted to pinch the cheeks of his adorable nephew. Or maybe your puppy does something so cute that you pull it in really close and squeeze it in a giant bear hug. It always made me wonder why someone would have the urge to pinch or squeeze something ‘cute’ despite not actually wanting to cause or intend to cause any harm to the cute little adorable thing. Science has confirmed that you’re not a psychopath for wanting to squeeze your newborn baby and there is a legitimate explanation.
I never really put any merit into this being anything more than a weird happenstance until my wife and I’s second child was born about a month ago. I was sitting with my wife one day after we got home from the hospital and I was kissing his arm while he was asleep. I looked up at my wife and said, ‘I completely understand what all those people meant all that time.’ Of course, she looked at me like I was crazy; but I explained that I always thought it was creepy when people said that they wanted to ‘eat their baby’ and I totally can understand what they are talking about. The phenomenon is called ‘cute aggression’ and it is described as a “superficially aggressive behavior caused by seeing something cute, such as a human baby or young animal”. So why does the presence of chubby little babies or a fluffy little puppy have us overwhelmed with a desire to squeeze, pinch or bite them?
Some scientists have proposed that something called cute aggression might be the brain’s way of responding to the cuteness we see. Katherine Stavropoulos, associate professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside and clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience says that “[i]f 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.” According to a 2015 cute aggression study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, Stravropoulos and her co-author sought out to find out exactly how our brain responses to cute babies and animals. They recruited 54 participants between the ages of 18-40 years old and showed them a series of images while they were fitted with EEG caps that measured brain activity. They looked at a series of images varying from cute baby animals, full-grown animals, and cute chubby babies. While viewing the images they were asked to rate the image with statements like “I want to squeeze something” or “I feel like pinching those cheeks”. They rated their emotions in regard to each image based on how much they wanted to care for the subjects in the photos. While the baby animals elicited a higher response of cute aggression; each image of a cute baby (despite how manipulated the photograph was in order to emphasize cuteness) showed signs of cute aggression.
Thankfully cute aggression doesn’t mean that we want to harm those cuddly critters or beautiful bouncing babies; quite the contrary it’s healthy. Babies are designed for us to fall in love with them. Those cute little noses, big beautiful eyes, squishy little arms, chubby little necks, or those sweet little sounds all draw us in and make us fall in love. The study of human behavior and social organization from a biological perspective known as ethology has proven that babies have these cute characteristics to attract us and make us want to take care of them. Throughout human existence, our brains have subconsciously associated these baby-like characteristics (which in ethnological terms are called baby schema) with a yearning to be caretakers. Despite an altruistic maternal instinct existing in women more than men, most of us have this yearning to be caretakers; this cute aggression (or the dimorphous expression as it is scientifically called) is a natural reaction to the emotions that we feel during that moment of ‘cuteness’. When our minds are overwhelmed by the cute stimuli, the expressions that are normally associated with negative emotions are a way to bring equilibrium to our emotional state because too many positive emotions can be stressful and overwhelming to our body.
The results of the cute aggression study, as well as many others, show that the brain’s of the participants who experienced cute aggression had greater neural activity in their emotional systems as well as their reward systems (which motivates their pleasure sensor and feelings of ‘wanting’). They suspect that cute aggression is the brain’s way to temper the onslaught of positive feelings. When the brain tosses in that dash of aggression, it allows us to concentrate more on the actual well being of that baby or cute animal; and not just be caught up in how adorable it is. So if you find yourself wanting to pinch the pudgy little cheeks of a beautiful little baby (though you shouldn’t touch a child in the face because of the transference of germs, just saying); just remember that its just your brain’s weird way of making sure that you’re prepared to take care of that cute little one. So, mama, if you’re finding yourself wanting to nibble on your baby; it’s perfectly normal. That baby’s cuteness is just motivating you to want to care for your baby even more. Nibbling those dimples and safely squeezing that baby is your way of being a more emotionally balanced person which in turn makes you an even better parent.
Adorable animal and baby by and attributed to AdinaVoicu – https://pixabay.com/en/girl-rabbit-friendship-love-1410443/ archive copy at the Wayback Machine (archived on 18 January 2019), CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71608960
Sleeping baby by and attributed to Stephanie Pratt – https://pixabay.com/en/baby-newborn-newborn-baby-cute-2610206/, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71916143
Baby Ginger Monkey by and attributed to Rob from Cambridge, MA – flickr.com, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=329502
Cute Friends by and attributed to Helgi Halldórsson from Reykjavík, Iceland – Cute Friends, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33780183
Newborn baby feet by and attributed to Janko Ferlič thepootphotographer – https://unsplash.com/photos/EpbIXGCrtK0archive copy at the Wayback Machine (archived on 5 May 2017), CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61847060