Have You Ever Seen a Baby So Cute You Want to Crush or Bite It?

It’s called ‘cute aggression’ and it could be key to survival.

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata from Pexels

When my babies were brand new and teeny tiny, I couldn’t stop smelling the tops of their heads. That sweet downy hair and impossibly soft skin made my heart swoon; it was all I could do not to pinch their chubby pink cheeks or nibble their stupidly cute toes. The sensation of wanting to squeeze my babies in the tightest hug was sometimes overwhelming.

But I wasn’t alone; family and friends would react similarly to the cuteness overload when they met my babies. Lots of ‘oo’s and ah’s’ and plenty of high pitched omg you’re so cute I could just EAT you! There was nothing particularly unique about my babies (sorry, kids), only the sheer fact that they were new and small and pink and sweet. And cute.

It got me thinking. Why would adults react to an adorable baby with actions that might harm them? Because if you bite or give a crushing hug or pinch those cheeks, you’ll likely hurt the baby, and yet the urge to do these things is universally felt by adults the world over. It’s a bizarre feeling to both find something charmingly sweet and also want to crush it, albeit minus the urge to cause harm. And yet, this phenomenon is well documented.

I am not the first person to wonder about this. A team of researchers at Yale University wanted to know the same thing. In 2015, they published a study that identified aggressive behaviors in people when exposed to cute stimuli. They called the resulting behaviors “cute aggression,” and the science behind it is wicked cool.

Cute aggression is when a person becomes overwhelmed by something so cute they literally cannot take it. Truly. The brain then scrambles emotions as a way to redirect the cuteness overload.

“Extremely positive experiences, and positive appraisals thereof, produce intense positive emotions that often generate both positive expressions (e.g., smiles) and expressions normatively reserved for negative emotions (e.g., tears),” the study reads.

Have you ever placed your hand under running water and felt momentarily confused by the sensation? The water is either too hot or too cold, but whatever is happening, the feeling is overwhelming, and you pull your hand away. This unsettling sensation is how I imagine the cute aggression theory to work in the brain. Otherwise, why would a rational person simultaneously feel the urge to both crush and love a cute baby? And yet, this feeling is widespread across cultures.

The Yale researchers point out that this phenomenon is not unique to cute stimuli; it occurs in other situations such as crying during otherwise happy events such as a graduation, the birth of a child, or a hero returning from war.

“During these dimorphous displays, both positive and negative expressions occur simultaneously in a disorganized manner, which leaves witnesses to rely on the context of the situation to interpret them,” the authors of the study note.

So why does the human brain scramble hard-wired emotions during emotionally potent situations? Scientists think it might be a way to protect the brain and body from harm.

“We presume that dimorphous expressions of emotion occur during situations in which people feel overwhelmed with emotion when they perceive that a point has been reached at which their emotions have become unmanageable,” the study reads. “These perceptions of feeling overwhelmed may be dictated by physiological limits and may deter people from sustaining high levels of emotion that can be deleterious for the body.”

This last observation piqued the interest of Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside. She wanted to know if she could peek into the brain and see what is happening when experiencing cute aggression. What she discovered was fascinating.

“Essentially, for people who tend to experience the feeling of ‘not being able to take how cute something is,’ cute aggression happens,” Stavropoulos told Science Daily. “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.”

It might sound odd, but this essentially translates to mean that the human brain is capable of being hindered by cuteness to the point of not being able to tend and care for a baby. Cute aggression kicks in to help startle the afflicted person back to reality.

“If 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,” Stavropoulos told Science Daily. “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.”

And there you have it. Cute aggression is nature’s way of bringing you back down to reality after becoming overwhelmed by how adorable your baby is.

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