Have you ever had the urge to pinch chubby-cheeked babies, or squeeze adorable puppies? Don’t worry, it’s a completely natural response, and here we’ll explain why...
Every time my friend sends me a picture of her baby, I feel my shoulders tense up. I’m not worried or anxious, in fact I normally sport a joyous grin as soon as I catch a glimpse of his teeny smile, or his boopable pink nose. But the rest of my body has a physical reaction. My knee-jerk response is to groan loudly, grit my teeth, and throw my phone across the room. Once I’ve composed myself and fished my phone out from under the sofa, I almost always text back the same reply: I CAN’T HANDLE IT. HE’S TOO CUTE.
I can’t explain the mixture of emotions. I love the little squishy angel so much that I have to look away. It’s like I’m worried I’ll become hypnotised by the lone tuft of wispy blonde hair on his head, or by the innocence in his bright blue eyes. The cuteness is just too much for me to bear.
You’ve probably felt something similar yourself, or witnessed it in other people. Maybe you’ve been reunited with a loved one, so pleased to see them that you’ve cried and hugged them so tight that it hurt. Maybe you have a dog-loving friend who smooshes the face of every puppy she meets. Maybe you’ve watched in concern as your granny squeals: “I could just eat him right up!” as though it’s entirely normal to want to nibble on a baby’s
Well the truth is, it is entirely normal. Yep, there’s an official term for the way that your auntie used to pinch your chubby little cheeks just that bit too hard. It’s called ‘cute aggression’ and it’s defined as the urge to squeeze, crush, or bite cute things without any desire to cause harm.
Most of us look at babies and instinctively find them cute, and experts say this is because certain infant characteristics (like a large head and a cuddly body) literally change our behaviour.
Animal behaviour expert Konrad Lorenz dubbed these infantile traits ‘baby schema’, and said that they motivate us to take care of the child, serving an important evolutionary function by keeping vulnerable babies safe, and increasing the likelihood of survival. In modern times, the concept has even been used by some marketers to make products more appealing. Just think about how many brands adopt a baby animal as their mascot, such as the Andrex puppy, for example.
Disposing of aggression
So, an affection for cute features is in our biological blueprint, but what about this unprovoked urge to crush every little doggo that comes our way? Well, although it might feel unnatural to think about squeezing, pinching, or grabbing a vulnerable pet or small child, it’s really nothing to worry about. According to psychoanalytic psychotherapist Smita Rajput Kamble, cute aggression invites play and has a useful function. She says: “It is a playful way of disposing of aggression, which could have otherwise been potentially uncomfortable. For example, soft-boxing someone without making real contact.”
Interest in cute aggression arose as the result of research published in 2014 by Oriana Aragón and Rebecca Dyer. Participants were shown a series of photographs of babies, and their expressions recorded. The babies who had the cutest features – round faces, big eyes – elicited cute aggressive responses. Alongside the aggression (fist-clenching, gritted teeth) participants simultaneously displayed caregiving emotions, and reported they had the urge to look after the baby.
This contradictory behaviour helps balance out our emotions when they suddenly get to a point where they are unmanageable
Avoiding joyful overload
There are some interesting hypotheses about why on earth we feel the urge to squish little puppy faces even though we find them cute. The first is that our brains aren’t very good at appraising positive events, or thinking about them from a negative perspective. The second is that we have less experience suppressing positive emotions, and this is the best defence that we have. The third is that on a practical level, removing ourselves from a positive situation (which is, psychologically speaking, an effective way to regulate strong positive emotions) simply isn’t feasible. A parent can’t step away from their duties as a caregiver, but they can display cute aggression to dampen the overwhelming feelings of joy which could otherwise leave them incapacitated.
The research certainly suggests that the involuntary response serves a function. In the baby picture experiment previously mentioned, those who displayed cute aggression were better at recovering from the intense, overwhelming feelings than everyone else. Playful pinching, or even just gritting your teeth, can arguably help to restore your emotional balance.
If you’re someone who experiences cute aggression on a regular basis (about half of all adults do) then the chances are you give off various dimorphous expressions to help stabilise your emotions. You’re probably the kind of person who cries happy tears in the cinema or screams like a banshee when you see your favourite band live on stage. It’s your way of coping with the rollercoaster of emotions that life throws at you.
No harm intended
This disconnect between emotions and behaviour is widely recognised by psychologists as dimorphous expression. Dimorphous expression refers to someone experiencing a strong emotion, such as happiness, and yet expressing the opposite emotion, such as sadness. This could be crying when you are experiencing joy, or laughing in an upsetting situation.
Studies suggest that this contradictory behaviour helps balance out our emotions when they suddenly get to a point where they are unmanageable. Have you ever lost someone close to you, and yet found yourself laughing with friends about a funny memory you have of them? This unconscious response brings us back to a sense of normality more quickly than if we had fully succumbed to the strong feeling.
They say that when you master your emotions you will be the master of your own reality, and cute aggression is just one – albeit a very interesting – example of how we naturally keep those emotions in check. Of course, many of us also employ unhealthy coping mechanisms such as physical aggression or substance abuse. But there are many effective techniques out there – such as talking, exercising, resting, and writing – which help us regulate the complicated emotions we experience as humans.
Thankfully, cute aggression has no real threat. In fact, it probably means that you just really, really want to hug a dog.
Smita Rajput Kamble is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. She also supervises trainees and qualified counsellors in Bedford Counselling Foundation.