A VERY CUTE PROBLEM: HOW DOES CUTE AGGRESSION OCCUR
Updated: May 21
By Yeevon Teo
A friend of mine has a white, fluffy Shiba Inu. She is one of the cutest dogs I have
ever seen. The first time I saw her I couldn’t help but mention how adorable she
was and that I wanted to pinch and squeeze her cheeks so badly. I then noticed
my friend’s bewildered look on his face, and quickly realised I have a problem...
A cute problem.
Cute aggression, or sometimes referred to as playful aggression, is an expression when one experiences “too much cuteness”.
It is often accompanied by an overwhelming urge to display seemingly violent
behaviours including pinching, squeezing, growling, or even biting towards the
object that is considered adorable, albeit without an intention to cause any harm.
This phenomenon was first described by Oriana Aragón and Rebecca Dyer from
Yale University in 2013. The two researchers invited volunteers to participate in
an experiment, where the participants were given bubble wraps and were
instructed to pop the bubbles at their desired frequency while viewing a
slideshow of neutral, adorable, and funny animals. Aragón and Dyer discovered
that participants popped more bubbles when they saw images of cute animals
than when they did at neutral and funny animal images. Since then, the term
“cute aggression” was popularised.
In 2015, the alternative term “playful aggression” was coined by Aragón and her research team with the following definition: “Playful aggression is in reference to the expressions that people show sometimes when interacting with babies. Sometimes we say things and appear to be more angry than happy, even though we are happy. For example, some people grit their teeth, clench their hands, pinch cheeks, or say things like “I want to eat you up!” It would be difficult to ask about every possible behaviour
of playful aggression, so we ask generally about things of this kind—calling them playful aggressions.”
So why is cuteness important, and how is it related to aggression and caregiving?
According to Nittono et al. (2012), cuteness arouses positive emotion and
induces a strong urge in an individual to approach the object considered cute. Cuteness is associated with baby schema, a concept proposed by Austrian ethologist, Konrad Lorenz. Baby schema is a set of facial and body features that includes a round face, big eyes and a large head, which makes an infant appear to be cute, hence induce an adult’s behaviour to nurture and care for said infant. Glocker et al. (2009) stated that the amount of baby schema in an infant’s physical features can affect the approach motivation and caretaking urge in
adults. It turns out that baby animals that are typically considered “cute”also possess similar characteristics to those of human babies, especially dogs and cats, which are the most common pet species. This might explain why juveniles are more easily adopted compared to adults in animal shelters.
Cute aggression is linked to the brain’s reward system. When exposed to a rewarding stimulus, the brain releases dopamine , a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. A study conducted by Katherine Stavropoulos and Laura Alba in 2018 showed that there was a significant positive correlation between the behavioural ratings of cute aggression towards adorable animals and the reward positivity (RewP) amplitude for cute animals. The RewP is a component of the event-related potential (ERP) related to reward processing.
Too much cuteness to handle...
When people are overwhelmed by extremely positive experience, they display both positive and negative expressions. There are numerous examples of dimorphous expressions of intense positive emotion; some people cry at their child’s wedding, some people growl or have an impulse to nibble an infant, and some people laugh so hard that they cry at something they think is hilarious.
Dimorphous expressions occur when your brain is unable to cope with an overwhelming emotion, regardless of a positive or a negative one. When the emotion is so extreme that it becomes unmanageable, the experience of emotional overwhelm is essentially dominated by psychological limits, preventing the individual from sustaining high levels of emotion that can lead to detrimental effects to the body. In other words, dimorphous expressions of emotion function as a regulator, with the secondary emotion serving to counterbalance the initial overwhelming emotion, thus allowing an individual to regain emotional equilibrium more rapidly.
This results in cute aggression.
Experiencing an overwhelming cuteness can trigger an intense desire to approach the cute object, causing the brain’s reward system to surge out of control. When an individual is incapacitated by how adorable the baby is – be it a human infant or a baby animal, he or she might not be able to take care of the baby. Cute aggression serves as a tempering mechanism that allows a caretaker (e.g., a mother or a pet owner) to care for an infant or an animal in an appropriate way. However, although almost every individual responds to cuteness, cute aggression is not necessarily a phenomenon present in all humans. According to Stavropoulos and Alba (2018), while some people are more susceptible to the feelings of overwhelming cuteness, there are others who have never experienced cute aggression. The perception of cuteness also varies between sexes; a study conducted by Lobmaier et al. (2010) stated that women could better distinguish cuteness cues by choosing the “cuter” infant compared to men. Stavropoulos also suggested that an individual might exhibit more cute aggression if he or she is a parent or a pet owner.
So now that you understand better the reasons behind such irrational/semi- aggressive behaviours, be sure to have some bubble wrap close by the next time you watch cute animal videos!
All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members
Aragon, O.R., Clark, M.S., Dyer, R.L.. and Bargh, J.A. (2015) ‘Dimorphous expressions of positive emotion: displays of both care and aggression in response to cute stimuli’, Psychological Science, 26, pp. 259–273. doi:10.1177/0956797614561044.
Arias-Carrión, O., Stamelou, M., Murillo-Rodríguez, E., Menéndez-González, M. and Pöppel, E.. (2010) ‘Dopaminergic reward system: a short integrative review’, International archives of medicine, 3, pp. 24. https://doi.org/10.1186/1755-7682-3-24.
Borgi, M., Cogliati-Dezza, I., Brelsford, V., Meints, K. and Cirulli, F. (2014) ‘Baby schema in human and animal faces induces cuteness perception and gaze allocation in children’, Frontiers in Psychology, 5. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00411.
Glocker, M.L., Langleben, D.D., Ruparel, K., Loughead, J.W., Valdez, J.N., Griffin, M.D., Sachser, N., Gur, R.C., 2009. Baby schema modulates the brain reward system in nulliparous women. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, pp. 9115–9119. doi:10.1073/pnas.0811620106.
Lobmaier, JS, Sprengelmeyer, R, Wiffen, B & Perrett, DI 2010, 'Female and male responses to cuteness, age and emotion in infant faces', Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(1), pp. 16-21. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.05.004
Nittono, H., Fukushima, M., Yano, A. and Moriya, H. (2012) ‘The power of kawaii: viewing cute images promotes a careful behavior and narrows attentional focus’, PLOS ONE, 7, e46362. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046362.
Sur, S. and Sinha, V. K. (2009), ‘Event-related potential: An overview’, Industrial psychiatry journal, 18(1), pp. 70–73. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-6748.57865.