science of us

Why Do I Want to Smoosh This Cute Baby Seal?

Aww. Photo: Harald Sund/Getty Images

If you’ve ever seen something so cute that you felt the fleeting urge to destroy it, there’s a phrase for that: “cute aggression,” coined in 2013. (Someone experiencing cute aggression may “grit their teeth, clench their hands, pinch cheeks, or say things like ‘I want to eat you up!’” — but have no desire to cause actual harm.)

But why? Why would we even momentarily feel the desire to ruin something precious, even as we also want to clutch it to our chest, forever? What is that feeling, and why does it exist?

One proposed explanation, tested in a new study designed to track how the brain physically experiences this cute aggression, is that the flicker of fantasy violence may temper what might otherwise be a paralyzing sense of awe — essentially popping our bubble of cuteness-reverence so we can actually tend to the cute thing that needs our help. As the study’s lead author hypothesized to UC Riverside’s news office: “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.” Also: “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.”

Hmm. I can’t say I’m totally buying it, but I also have no proposed alternative. In the study, participants wore brain electrodes and were shown pictures of animals and humans, baby and adult, some of which were Photoshopped for maximal cuteness (these pictures are unfortunately not included in the published study, which feels like an oversight). The participants were then asked to rate how overwhelmed and protective they felt, as the researchers kept track of the participants’ neural activity.

The researchers did find a measurable correlation between self-reported “cute aggression” and activation in the brain’s reward center, which is apparently associated with feelings of motivation (to care for the cute things, perhaps?) and pleasure — but only in response to the pictures of cute animals (and not the ones of human babies). Cute aggression “appears to be a complex and multi-faceted emotional response,” the researchers write in their conclusion, “that likely serves to mediate strong emotional responses and allow care-taking to occur.”

I’m still not totally sold on the bubble-popping theory, but it’s growing on me. I’d be curious to get a more scientific understanding of why I want to bury my face in cute things, suffocating myself, although I would imagine it’s something similar.

In parting:

Why Do I Want to Smoosh This Cute Baby Seal?