A couple years back, a team of research psychologists ID’d a phenomenon called “cute aggression,” wherein the sight of something cute (an infant, a puppy) paradoxically yields statements like ‘I just want to kill it!!’ The term pinpointed something universal and more or less instantly went viral, and a couple of years later a team of neuroscientists verified its basis in the brain. As the term settles into the small glossary of psych-terms widely known by non-professionals, for this week’s Giz Asks we reached out to members of both teams, as well as a few experts in the burgeoning field of ‘cute studies,’ for a definitive handle on how it all works, and where research in the field may be headed.
Assistant Professor, Special Education, UC Riverside, who had researched the neural mechanisms of cute aggression
This phenomenon was first identified by Oriana Aragon and her colleagues at Yale; they’re the ones who gave this a name. There had been earlier research into cuteness: there’s something we call the baby schema, which Konrad Lorenz published about in 1943. He was trying to understand commonalities between things that people think are cute. He came up with a bunch of features that, in his hypothesis, defined ‘cuteness’ – for instance, really big eyes, a small nose, chubby cheeks, or a bulbous head that’s too big for your body – you know, how little babies’ heads are too big for their bodies, but in a cute way? Essentially, these features are what people agree makes something “cute”.
One thing I think it’s important to understand is that the feelings of cute aggression occur without any intention to cause harm. It’s a weird phenomenon: it’s called cute aggression, and people are talking about aggressive actions, but they don’t actually want to hurt the thing they’re talking about – they in fact definitely don’t want to hurt the thing, at all. The language is aggressive – ‘I want to punch it,’ for instance – but it’s unusual, because typically when someone says ‘I want to punch some person,’ they mean it. With instances of cute aggression, when you ask the person if they actually want to punch the thing, it’s like ‘oh god no! Never! It’s so cute! I would never hurt it.’
The work I did on cute aggression was looking at trying to understand what happens to the brain, because that’s my area of interest. We found that the reward system and the emotion system seem to both be related to people’s self-reported feelings of cute aggression – meaning that the people who are more likely to feel cute aggression were also the people more likely to have more brain activity in those systems when looking at something cute.
One thing we found that I think is really important is that people who feel cute aggression don’t think things are cuter than people who don’t experience cute aggression. It’s not that, because we know there’s a decent number of people who don’t feel cute aggression, and have no idea what we’re talking about when we say like, ‘oh, it’s so cute I want to eat it!’ Those people just stare at you and are like, ‘what are you talking about?’
The people who felt cute aggression and the people who didn’t found things equally cute. What seems to differ – and what seems to potentially be the linchpin of all this – is that the people who felt cute aggression tended to be overwhelmed by how positively they felt towards the cute thing. No one’s immune to cuteness, but some people – the people who feel cute aggression – are actually overwhelmed by cuteness.
We’re starting a study soon in which we’re trying to understand whether people’s personal experiences play a role in this. People who feel cute aggression don’t always feel it towards the same things – I’m a dog person, I personally feel cute aggression towards puppies, but I know people who are like ‘no no no – I’m a cat person, and I feel it towards kittens, but not really towards puppies.’ Personally, I’m curious about whether people who have cats feel more cute aggression towards cats, and whether people who have babies feel more cute aggression towards babies. It also might be kind of a chicken-or-the-egg problem – is it that the people who are more susceptible to cute aggression towards certain things more surround themselves with those things (e.g. I feel cute aggression towards puppies but not kittens, so I have dogs not cats), or is it our experiences with those things (e.g. I have experienced an adorable 8-week old puppy) that makes us more likely to feel cute aggression towards those things? I think that is a fascinating question that has yet to be explored.
“...the people who felt cute aggression tended to be overwhelmed by how positively they felt towards the cute thing. No one’s immune to cuteness, but some people – the people who feel cute aggression – are actually overwhelmed by cuteness.”
Assistant Professor, Social Psychology, Clemson College of Business, who lead the initial research into cute aggression
Essentially this all came about because I was watching Leslie Bibb on Conan O’Brien, and she was saying “oh my god, that puppy’s so cute, I just want to punch it in the face!” She was gritting her teeth, and clenching her hands slightly. This was the summer of 2011. No one had ever identified it before. The idea was: why is she doing that? So I decided to start looking into it.
The very first thing we did was check around the world to see if there was evidence in the language that this exists, and it did: almost all the languages we surveyed had some phrase that means “so cute I want to squish it” (or pinch it, or squeeze it, etc.). So it was something that was consistent in human behaviour, but we couldn’t understand why.
At first, we thought it had something to do with regulating our emotions – that somehow, expressing this sort of negativity actually balanced how positive we felt. And we did find that when people express these things they come down off of that sort of baby-high or cute-high faster – they recover faster from that intense feeling. They come back to baseline faster from that real positive experience. One of the main points to make very clear is that it’s a physical display only – the feelings going on inside are very positive.
We also make this kind of ‘awww’ with a really pronounced pout when we see cuteness, and it’s almost an expression of extreme sadness: if you were to take a quick snapshot of that person in that moment, and ask people what is this person was experiencing, they’d assume something bad had just happened, when actually it’s just another response we have to babies.
It’s hard to say that emotion regulation is exactly the reason, because people who express this way are also, we found, more malleable – they come up faster and they also go down faster in their reported experiences of emotion. We don’t know if people who express this way also happen to be people who are very malleable in their expressions, or if expressions such as these actually make people’s emotional experiences more malleable. So although emotion regulation could be a possibility, we have not been able to experimentally show that. Another reason why we might express like this could be what some people suggest is an ironic effect – where these aggressive expressions may remind ourselves of how delicate babies are. We don’t have any empirical evidence for that, but that’s been put forth too.
We did find one very strong possible explanation for these expressions, in a paper I worked on with John Bargh in 2018, in which we found that these particular aggressive expressions in positive situations provide a very strong social signal: they tell people that the expresser wants to go, move, or approach. The sad expression sends a very strong signal to others that this person wants to sort of sit back, pause or stop.
For instance, if a new mum is with her baby, and a stranger comes up, and makes an aggressive expression, that mum’s going to have a lot of information about how this person wants to interact with her baby. She wants to get close fast, she’s coming up, she’s gonna get that baby, right? But if she has the sad expression, she’s understanding that that person just wants to sit back and take in that beautiful baby, and not necessarily approach it. So these expressions deliver a lot of social information.
And we know that, thousands of years ago, we were in more of a community structure, and more than one caretaker would tend to a human infant. It just makes sense that we have these very strong, prevalent, pervasive signals that indicate how we’re going to interact with each other’s babies, especially when you can be very protective about it. I think that’s the strongest case, and we have tons of evidence for that one – we ran a ton of research and were able to really, really nail that one down. It may not be the only reason, but it’s a very strong reason, and I think it’s supported also by what you see in everyday life: you are less likely to see strangers approach a baby with an attitude of cute aggression, probably because the mom would just grab it up and say ‘no! go away!’ But you will see it with families and close friends.
“At first, we thought it had something to do with regulating our emotions – that somehow, expressing this sort of negativity actually balanced how positive we felt.”
Senior Associate Professor, Literature, Film and New Media, University of Amsterdam, and co-editor of The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness
Lori Merish has commented on the “freakishness” of cuteness – that is, the oversizing of particular features that distinguish cute objects such as Hello Kitty or, my favourite example, the Mattel Kiddle of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. While the dolls were undeniably cute, children, in my memory, both loved them and had derogatory, somewhat sadistic names for them. Little boys in particular liked to deride the freakish gigantism of Kiddles’ cute heads, and I think everyone has a memory of kids torturing or otherwise aggressing a cute object. Perhaps equally apt is a comment an old friend made about grown-up actress Heather Locklear: “she’s cute, and that’s unforgivable.”
So while cuteness has the potential to awaken caring, affection, tender feeling and even candy-coloured excitement, its flip side is aggression – “I love you to death.” This, of course, makes cuteness a much more interesting, complex, less boringly saccharine and homogeneous aesthetic and practice than it may appear on the surface. And this is a good thing, because cuteness has infected our entire life and world, with LEGO, cute cat videos and furries.
With all of the above then, I think it’s important to keep in mind that whatever emotion cuteness releases in us – from affection to aggression – it produces affect or emotion, and acts as what Konrad Lorenz called an IRM, or innate releasing mechanism. This, above all, is what gives cuteness its enormous potential to comfort as well as addict.
I’d suggest that the current spate of dangerous and, to my mind, sadistic populist leaders – Trump, Johnson, Ford – are rocking a certain kind of roly-poly, empty, playful, and, at turns, down-right silly kind of cuteness, coalescing as a global emoji wave that quite obviously acts as an IRM for their respective bases. Think chubby, clumsy Trump, awkwardly swinging at a golf ball in that silly red baseball cap (perhaps to the music of the Great Root Beer commercials); Doug Ford, the buck-a-beer-guy; or Boris Johnson with that crazy cute hair and those bizarre random rapid arm gestures. This is cuteness that candy-coats while delivering inarticulate messages peppered with cute talk about “the D.U.D.E.”, “Rocket Man”, and so on, which for me calls forth Chucky, and for their followers perhaps Shrek. But what I’m suggesting is not new: Robin Williams said the same of the Republicans under Ronald Reagan back in the 1980s, comparing them to Mickey, Goofy, Donald Duck, and other characters created by Disney, the corporate face of cuteness.
Might the dual address of cuteness and the complex reactions this IRM awakens not equally be connected to the wave of hatred as well as the outpouring of affection for cute little Greta Thunberg?
“...while cuteness has the potential to awaken caring, affection, tender feeling and even candy-colored excitement, its flip side is aggression – ‘I love you to death.’ This, of course, makes cuteness a much more interesting, complex, less boringly saccharine and homogeneous aesthetic and practice than it may appear on the surface.”
Professor, Foreign Languages and Literatures, Tokyo Gakugei University, and co-editor of The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness
The answer lies in the classic “irresistible force meets immovable object” conundrum. When we find something to be unbearably cute – a kitten, a puppy, a small child – the urge to squeeze, pinch or even bite it feels irresistible. Yet cute objects are unmoved by this danger. They’re not afraid that our affection will turn aggressive and smother them with love because we won the fight against this base impulse long ago, at the dawn of human evolution.
Homo sapiens evolved to cooperate, and large-scale collaboration requires a set of social skills held in common. Crucially, the cuteness response encourages people to socialise with not only their own children but others as well. The cuteness of small children prompts social engagement – from smiles to funny faces, baby talk to playful behaviour – that imparts the life skills and communicative abilities vital to being and acting together. Much later domesticated animals like dogs and cats took advantage of this impulse and rode it straight into our hearts.
An absolutely adorable child, puppy or kitten overloads the cuteness response until we want to squeeze the life out of it – but we can’t. Instead, we clench our fists and our vocal cords. Our voice rises in pitch and higher cognitive functions flee as we babble and coo in baby talk. All of these responses are aggressive, but they are not directed against the helpless cute object. Instead, we turn the aggression upon ourselves in order to ensure that cute things are not harmed. This, too, was an evolutionary necessity.
When the irresistible force of “Aww!” meets the immovable cute object and rebounds against our own bodies, the result is a net positive. Cuteness helps us relax and deal with stress by producing feelings of comfort and wellbeing. Research has shown that even looking at cute images activates reward centers in the brain while fostering empathy, compassion and a sense of community. In this time of social distancing and isolation we face increasing stress and anxiety. Why not treat yourself to some homemade cuteness therapy? Find the cutest possible content online and allow it to soothe your soul. The science says you’ll feel better.