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The effect of cute aggression on brain activity

mother holding a cute baby and smiling

Credit: BigStock

Have you ever looked at a baby and felt the urge to pinch their cheeks or bite their little fingers? Or felt like squeezing a little puppy because it looks cute? This phenomenon to squeeze, crush or bite things without any intention of harm is known as cute aggression. Responding to the cuteness of an animal or a baby is not a new phenomenon. From an evolutionary point of view, your ability to respond to cuteness triggers an innate process of caregiving. Previous studies on cute aggression have been the domain of psychology, however a new study from the University of California investigated the neural components of cute aggression. The researchers wondered that if a person feels the urge to bite or squeeze a cute object, then will their brain reflect any activity which could be connected to these urges?

The researchers also observed the brain’s reward system and the emotion system being activated in response to cute aggression.

The researchers recruited 54 adult participants between the ages of 18 and 40. The participants reported no history of developmental disabilities or psychiatric conditions and were not taking any medication for psychiatric or neurological conditions. All participants wore caps fitted with electrodes and were shown 32 pictures in four blocks divided into four categories: Cute (enhanced) babies; Less cute (non-enhanced) babies; Cute (baby) animals; and Less cute (adult) animals. After viewing each block on a computer screen, the participants were shown a set of statements and asked to rate how much they agreed with them on a scale of 1 to 10. This way the participants assessed how cute they found each block of photographs — known as appraisal, and if they experienced any response to it. The participants also rated how overwhelmed they felt after viewing the photos (“I can’t handle it!” and “I can’t stand it!”) and whether they felt compelled to take care of what they had just viewed (“I want to hold it!” and “I want to protect it!”). The researchers also measured the brain activity of the participants before, during and after viewing the set of images.

The researchers found that the participants rated baby animals significantly higher than adult animals and had more significant feelings of cute aggression such as being overwhelmed, appraisal or caretaking towards baby animals than towards adult animals. However, the difference was not observed for the two categories of babies — cute (enhanced) and less cute (non-enhanced). The researchers also observed the brain’s reward system and the emotion system being activated in response to cute aggression. There was an especially strong correlation between ratings of cute aggression towards cute animals and the reward response in the brain towards cute animals. The study found that the relationship between cute aggression and appraisal was significantly mediated by feelings of being overwhelmed or “not being able to take how cute something is”. These findings provide information about how emotional processes occur over time, and how cute aggression may serve to regulate overwhelming emotions so that you are not incapacitated by such overwhelming feelings which may interrupt your ability to take care of something you perceive as cute.

This study provides vital insight into the neural mechanisms of how cute aggression affects brain activity and behaviour. It reveals that cute aggression is a complex emotional response to cute things that serves a purpose — it mediates a strong emotional response and allows you to take care of the perceived cute baby or cute animal.

Source: Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience


Meena Azzollini

Meena is passionate about holistic wellbeing, alternative healing, health and personal power and uses words to craft engaging feature articles to convey her knowledge and passion. She is a freelance writer and content creator from Adelaide, Australia, who draws inspiration from family, travel and her love for books and reading.

A yoga practitioner and a strong believer in positive thinking, Meena is also a mum to a very active young boy. In her spare time, she loves to read and whip up delicious meals. She also loves the smell of freshly made coffee and can’t ever resist a cheesecake. And she gets tickled pink by anything funny!