A study determines why we feel compelled to pinch a baby’s chubby cheeks

May 3, 2019

If you’ve ever felt a powerful impulse to clutch a cute puppy or pinch a baby’s chubby cheeks—or even to nibble on them without intent to harm— you’ve felt what is commonly referred to as “cute aggression.”

But why? A researcher at the University of California–Riverside recently conducted a first-of-its-kind study to explore the neural underpinnings of this phenomenon.

Assistant Professor of Special Education Katherine Stavropoulos first learned about cute aggression when she read about the groundbreaking findings of Yale University psychologist Oriana Aragón in 2015—but she wanted to know more.

“The Yale researchers initially found that people reported feeling cute aggression more in response to baby animals versus adult animals,” explains Stavropoulos. “But even beyond that, people reported feeling cute aggression more in response to picture of human babies that had been digitally enhanced to appear more infantile, and therefore ‘more cute,’ by enlarging features like their eyes, cheeks, and foreheads.”

In her research, Stavropoulos used electrophysiology to evaluate surface-level electrical activity that arises from neurons firing in people’s brains. By studying that activity, she gauged neural responses to a range of external stimuli.

She hypothesized that her studies of brain activity would reveal action in the brain’s reward system, which creates motivation, feelings of “want,” and pleasure, or in the brain’s emotional processing system, or both.

For the study, she recruited 54 participants between the ages of 18 and 40. The participants wore caps embedded with electrodes and were shown 32 photographs 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, participants were then shown a set of statements and asked to rate how much they agreed with them on a scale of 1 to 10.

The survey was designed to assess how cute participants found each block of photographs — known as “appraisal” — and how much cute aggression they were experiencing in response. 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!”). 

Overall, participants self-reported the most significant feelings of cute aggression toward cute (baby) animals. Among the two categories of human babies — cute (enhanced) and less cute (non-enhanced) — Stavropouloss did not observe the same pattern. 

To her knowledge, the study’s results, published last December in the journal, Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, are the first to confirm a neural basis for cute aggression.

 “There was an especially strong correlation between ratings of cute aggression experienced toward cute animals and the reward response in the brain toward cute animals,” Stavropoulos said. “This is an exciting finding, as it confirms our original hypothesis that the reward system is involved in people’s experiences of cute aggression.”

Another result that Stavropoulos said lends weight to prior theories: The relationship between how cute something is and how much cute aggression someone experiences toward it appears to be tied to how overwhelmed that person is feeling.

“Essentially, for people who tend to experience the feeling of ‘not being able to take how cute something is,’ cute aggression happens,” Stavropoulos said. “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.”

Stavropoulos likened this process of mediation to an evolutionary adaptation. Such an adaptation may have developed as a means of ensuring people are able to continue taking care of creatures they consider particularly cute.

“For example, 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,” Stavropoulos said. “Cute aggression may serve as a tempering mechanism that allows us to function and actually take care of something we might first perceive as overwhelmingly cute.”

In the future, Stavropoulos hopes to use electrophysiology to study the neural bases of cute aggression in a variety of populations and groups, such as mothers with postpartum depression, people with autism spectrum disorder, and participants with and without babies or pets.

“I think if you have a child and you’re looking at pictures of cute babies, you might exhibit more cute aggression and stronger neural reactions,” she said. “The same could be true for people who have pets and are looking pictures of cute puppies or other small animals.”

Research contact: katherine.stavropoulos@ucr.edu

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