Is This Normal? “Every Time I See a Cute Baby or Animal, I Want to Smoosh It”
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
Babies inspire a lot of things in adults. Love. Self-improvement. More frequent visits to your parents. And, if you’re anything like me, aggression. Yes: Every time I see a baby, I want to pinch their chubby cheeks. Any time I see a cute animal, I have an urge to smoosh it to to my chest in an uncharacteristically violent cuddle. And I say Hannibal Lecter-ish things like “I just want to nibble on you!”
What kind of monster am I?
Apparently I’m a normal monster. Not only is this behavior common, there is even a name for it: cute aggression, or playful aggression. It’s a type of what psychologists call a dimorphous display of emotion, that is, when two contradictory emotions somehow exist at the same time — for instance, when someone sobs out of happiness. And it appears to be a fairly universal human experience; languages as diverse as Czech, Bahasa and Tagalog all contain words that specifically describe the squeeee part of squeeze.
A 2013 study out of Yale University, US, found looking at images of cute animals prompted people to pop an average of 120 bubble-wrap bubbles, during the slideshow, than the average 80 bubbles popped by people watching slideshows of neutral-looking or funny-looking animals.
“We don’t have a bunch of budding sociopaths in our studies that you have to worry about,” Rebecca Dyer, one of the researchers, told Live Science at the time. “It might be that how we deal with high positive-emotion is to sort of give it a negative pitch somehow. That sort of regulates, keeps us level and releases that energy.”
But Dyer admitted it was speculation; the study couldn’t why people become borderline violent in the face of adorableness.
Five years later, however, a new study backs up her theory.
“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,” says Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside, US.
Stavropoulos, a clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience, is the first to track the brain activity behind cute aggression. To do this, participants in her study wore caps outfitted with electrodes while rating the cuteness of various images — of babies, which had been enhanced to emphasize cute features like big eyes and cheeks; of babies, without enhancement; of baby animals; and of adult animals.
Sure enough, the brain’s reward and emotion systems lit up more when people experienced more cute aggression. Stavropoulos suspects it’s an evolutionary development that ensured humans would be able to take care of cute, defenseless creatures without becoming overwhelmed and incapacitated by their preciousness.
“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,” she says.
And there it is — not only is cute aggression completely normal, it’s actually a reaction that helps us better care for the subject of our aggression.