a cute labrador puppy a cute labrador puppy

Cute aggression: why you might want to squash every adorable thing you see

Play icon
Ben Knight
Ben Knight,

If too cute is simply too much for us to handle, our minds can do a strange thing.

Have you ever encountered something so adorable that you had an inexplicable urge to playfully harm it? If so, you’re not the only one who has felt this way.

In psychology, the phenomenon is called cute aggression, which may include desires to squeeze, crush, pinch, or even bite an object of our affection.

But cute aggression doesn’t appear to be motivated by vicious intent. Instead, scientists think it is a way we cope with intense positive emotions.

“Cute aggression seems to be a mechanism to manage the overload of positive feelings we can get when we interact with something too cute for us to handle,” says Associate Professor Lisa A. Williams, a social psychologist from UNSW Science. “In other words, to counter an overwhelming barrage of positive feelings, we seek to tamp it down – and weirdly enough, that can play out as an aggressive inclination.”

Media enquiries

Ben Knight
UNSW Media & Content
(02) 9065 4915

Cuteness may act as an evolutionary trigger for caregiving. Photo: Shutterstock.

In the same way that we might become so overcome with joy that we cry or become overwhelmed by nerves to the point of laughing, A/Prof. Williams says we may become overloaded by cuteness and experience the opposite, contradictory response of aggression.

“It may be considered a dimorphous emotional expression – a paradoxical response in highly emotional situations that run counter to what we might expect,” A/Prof. Williams says. “In cute aggression, this manifests as a feeling of wanting to crush or pinch something we find adorable, but there seems to be no inclination to actually act on that impulse with the intent to harm.”

Cuteness overload

The term “aggression” itself may be a bit of a misnomer for this phenomenon. The cute aggression response appears to be closely associated with activity in areas of the brain associated with both reward and emotion, but not aggression.

“One study where participants viewed different stimuli including extremely cute things showed relatively more activity in the reward and emotions areas of the brain when viewing something cute,” A/Prof. Williams says. “The response in these areas was even stronger among those people who reported feeling cute aggression.

“It supports the idea that we like to view cute stimuli, even if we sometimes find it overwhelming.”

What we each find cute can be down to personal preference. Photo: Shutterstock.

Though what we find adorable can come down to personal preferences, some features may help make something appear cuter to us. In general, people tend to find babies cute, which some researchers say acts as an evolutionary trigger for caregiving.

“To humans, cute things usually register with us as worthy of precise, careful, caring behaviour rather than something to be hostile towards, which makes sense from an evolutionary point of view,” A/Prof. Williams says. “Babies require a lot of help, so cuteness activates our instinct to protect and nurture.

“But if you’re overcome by the cuteness, then you might not be able to properly take care of it, so the brain needs to bring us back a bit, which is apparently where cute aggression comes in.”

Some evidence suggests we’re even more careful in our physical movements after viewing something we find cute. But as always, people should always be mindful that they’re not causing any harm even if they are playfully expressing affection, A/Prof. Williams says.

The same adoration we feel for our own babies may also carry over to other animals with similar body proportions that require care, such as puppies and kittens.

Only some of us experience the cute aggression response. Photo: Shutterstock.

“We can, and do, find a range of things cute. For some of us, that will be a really intense positive feeling where we experience the cute aggression response, which isn’t anything to worry about,” A/Prof. Williams says.

Those who don’t experience cute aggression have nothing to be concerned about either.

“There are always individual differences between us. We all experience and process things differently,” A/Prof. Williams says.

“Whatever your response, it simply sheds light on the fascinating interplay between our brains, our emotions and our behaviour.”