We asked an expert about cute aggression — the feeling you get when you see an animal so cute, you could eat it up

pxhere‘Cute aggression’ happens when you see an adorable creature.
  • Cute aggression is when someone acts in a mock physically aggressive way in reaction to something adorable.
  • It is often seen when people say something is “so cute [they] could squish it.”
  • It isn’t dangerous, but it does communicate a very strong emotional experience.
  • Cute aggression is one of several dimorphous expressions aka expressions that physically appear to be different than the emotion the person is feeling.

When you see an adorable baby or puppy, do you feel like you just want to squeeze it and hold it? You might feel a little loony, but that’s not an uncommon response to cuteness. In fact, that reaction has a name: cute aggression.

Cute aggression is when you physically react in a mock aggressive way to something adorable. Think of whe people say that something is so cute they could squeeze it. Scientifically, it’s known as a dimorphous expression, or what appears to be a negative expression of emotions towards extremely positive experiences. Another form of dimorphous expression is crying at positive experiences.

“The one thing that’s universal is when those expressions come about, those aggressive expressions, no matter what the situation, positive or negative, it sends a signal that there’s a strong emotional experience happening,” Clemson University researcher Dr. Oriana R. Aragón told INSIDER. Dr. Aragón co-wrote a 2015 Yale study on cute aggression and is continuing to study the phenomenon.

“People don’t usually make those full-blown expressions for a minor irritation. It’s usually something that they’re feeling pretty intensely.”

Cute aggression isn’t actually threatening or dangerous

Even though the indicators of cute aggression may seem or sound dangerous, the emotions behind it are totally safe. Dr. Aragón said people who experience cute aggression simply want to care for the cute baby or puppy.

“It’s all coming from a really good emotional place and emotional feelings [that] are positive and strong,” she said. “So even though we use the word aggression, it’s just because the physical display looks like that, not that people are feeling that way.”

We don’t really know why people use dimorphous expressions, but it could be because of how those expressions help us communicate

“It has this great communication function that is important to us. Communication of emotions is really important,” Dr. Aragón said. “It’s really important to us humans to be able to facilitate our social interactions, to cooperate, and work towards goals, to understand other people’s motivations, their desires, their intentions. All of this stuff comes together and a lot of it is done through emotional expression.”

“So what expressions that we’ve conserved over the thousands and thousands of years of interacting with one another, they have to serve some sort of purpose. So it could very well be that these are like really good indicators to give us an idea of what that person’s about to do,” Dr. Aragón added.

Cute aggression communicates that the person expressing those emotions feels antsy

“It appears that when we do these aggressive expressions, it sends really strong signals and it represents to ourselves this sort of antsy feeling of wanting to move,” Dr. Aragón said.

You could be reacting that way for any number of reasons including because you won a prize, lost a prize, or saw a cute puppy, but whatever it is, that reaction signals a desire to move and go, she said.

“The aggressive one is [showing] … they have an antsy-ness like ‘I need to get close to that … right now like I need to grab it, I need to squeeze it, I need to be close to it,'” she said.

Kitten small cat volunteering animalsiStockCute aggression is way of expressing a strong emotion.

The reason some people feel so strongly about cute things is that we have strong care mechanisms that drive us to protect our young

Cute aggression is an expression of intense emotion, which is caused by our instincts to care for and protect our young. That instinct kicks in at the moment we realise that what we’re looking at is a baby or the baby version of something.

“Once we get that idea, we think it’s cute,” Dr. Aragón said. “And once we make that appraisal that it’s cute, all of a sudden, our care mechanisms kick in. We want to care for it, protect it, nurture it, feed it, all those good things.”

“It’s really kind of a pattern matching. It has to do with the survival of our species, and we have to take care of our young. Our young are particularly vulnerable for a long time, [so] we have a really strong care mechanism … it’s as strong as people’s desire to have sex or to eat or to sleep. It’s one of those basic things, we really need it to survive.”

Your care mechanism can be set off by things other than human babies, too

But that care mechanism can be triggered by things other than human babies. Almost anything can spur on our care mechanism as long as there’s a cue that signals the creature or object is a baby version.

“It’s funny because when researchers even put these little baby features and stuff on cars – they make rounded features and bigger headlights and smaller grills, people are like, ‘oh the car’s so cute,'” Dr. Aragón said.

Puppy room 2Will Wei / Tech InsiderYou may have this reaction because you want to take care of this puppy.

There are also other types of dimorphous expressions, including the appearance of sadness when you see something cute

According to Dr. Aragón’s research, people also make a pronounced pouty face when they see cute things. She has found that the pouty or appearance of sadness is even more common than cute aggression, she said.

The pouting or sad-appearing dimorphous expression signals a desire to regroup or savour the moment

When someone makes a sad face or even cries from strong positive experiences like seeing something cute, that almost universally indicates and communicates “that person wants to stop for a minute,” Dr. Aragón said.

“It could be that they want to stop to savour that moment, it could be that they just need to regroup, but that’s the one thing that those expressions have in really good common.”

Baby on aeroplaneJohannes Albert / ShutterstockSometimes a feeling of sadness just means you want to savour the moment.

People who have dimorphous expressions tend to be more expressive in general

“When an individual is the one who wants to pinch the baby’s cheeks, that’s also someone who’s more likely to cry at the weddings or cry when receiving an award,” Dr. Aragón said. “They do sort of reside within a person when people do these dimorphous expressions … They seem to do it across a few different kinds of expressions. It’s not usually just the cute aggression, it’s usually a lot of them.”

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