Chubby little baby cheeks just might be the most adorable things in the world, if you ask me. The cute factor is so high that I sometimes feel like I want to take a bite out of them. Obviously I don't literally want to munch on a baby's face, but something about a tiny person that cuddly sparks this urge. If you can relate, no need to worry that you're a terrible person, because this is actually a pretty common phenomenon called "cute aggression," and it totally explains why you want to squeeze cute things. Not only is wanting to give a precious pup a big, tight hug completely harmless, it might actually mean you're a great caretaker.
Published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, the latest study to take a look at how intense cuteness can affect people monitored the brains of 54 participants to see what was actually taking place in their noggins when they wanted to chomp on an adorable pup or squeeze a cute kitty with all their might.
According to the study's press release from the University of California, Riverside, each participant, while wearing a brain-monitoring device, was asked to look at photos that fell into four categories: cute babies, cute babies whose faces were digitally altered to make them appear even more cute, cute baby animals, and adult animals. When asked a serious of questions about the images, people said that they felt more of this "cute aggression" (aka that weird urge to squeeze or bite whatever is so gosh darn cute) toward the baby animals than the adult ones. In other words, all pups are cute, but apparently fur babies really take the cake when it comes to the precious factor.
This whole "cute aggression" thing actually happens because of the way your brain is wired. “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,” said study co-author Katherine Stavropoulos in the U.C. Riverside press release. “This is an exciting finding, as it confirms our original hypothesis that the reward system is involved in people’s experiences of cute aggression.”
So what exactly causes these feelings, then? According to this study's results, there is a connection between how overwhelmed you feel when faced with an incredibly cute creature, and how tightly you want to squeeze them. Basically, some people's brains seem to have a hard time handling that much cuteness, and so these feelings of "aggression" help them deal with that. Plus, on a chemical level, the study reports, the same release of dopamine (aka a neurotransmitter related to pleasure and reward) happens in your brain when you see a precious pup and when you act aggressively, so something about the connection between the two experiences can apparently make your brain feel really good.
But listen, if you're reading all of this talk of cute aggression and thinking, "Uh, I never feel that way," don't worry. It's not the kind of thing that indicates a "normal" or "healthier" brain or anything like that, and in fact, experiencing the phenomenon might actually mean you're a more aggressive person in general. A 2015 study on the cute aggression experience, published in the scientific journal Psychological Science, found that people who are overcome with these need-to-squeeze emotions when faced with adorable infants or animals are, oftentimes, the same people who experience feelings of aggression more intensely.
Don't let that scare you, though. If you are someone who experiences cute aggression, it doesn't mean you have any actual intentions to hurt a precious fur baby or human infant. Rather, some say it could actually mean you're well-equipped to take care of the thing you're gushing over, whether it's a baby or a pup. “Because they may help people to regain control over their intense emotions, these expressions help the caretaker to [care for an animal or baby] appropriately,” Oriana Aragón, lead researcher for the Psychological Science study, told National Geographic.
So the next time you pull in your cute-as-can-be puppy for the best hug ever, take a moment to really cherish and celebrate the close bond that the two of you share. Just, you know, don't squeeze 'em too hard.