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Why Do Some People Want to Squeeze or Pinch Cute Things?

Margaret Lipman
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Have you ever seen an adorable puppy or kitten and found yourself so overcome by its cuteness that you want to squeeze, pinch, or even bite it? If you’ve wondered whether saying things like “You’re so cute I could eat you!” is normal, then the answer is yes. And if you’re bewildered by this type of reaction, then you’re “normal” as well.

Around half of adults have experienced what psychologists term “cute aggression,” also known as “playful aggression.” It appears to be an entirely innocuous psychological phenomenon, so rest assured that people who experience cute aggression aren’t actually going to pinch or nibble on baby bunnies. The involuntary reaction seems to be an example of a dimorphous (both positive and negative) expression of a positive emotion.

Psychologists at the University of California, Riverside used electroencephalography caps to study the electrical activity of 54 study participants’ brains as they looked at pictures of baby animals, adult animals, human babies, and adult humans, some of which had been manipulated to look extra cute (e.g., large eyes and cheeks). The researchers found that cuteness was universally associated with the areas of the brain responsible for emotion. However, when the images elicited a response of “cute aggression,” they noticed that there was also significant activity in the brain’s reward centers, specifically the mesolimbic system. The researchers believe that producing aggressive thoughts is the brain’s way of controlling these two powerful positive forces and regulating ourselves.

Cuteness overload!

  • Another well-known example of a dimorphous expression of emotion is to cry during a joyful moment, such as a wedding or the birth of a child.

  • Katherine Stavropoulos, the lead researcher in the UC Riverside study, believes that the evolutionary role of cute aggression is to help people “come down” when they get overwhelmed by cuteness. Although there is strong evolutionary evidence that the cute, vulnerable traits of human babies help elicit a strong caregiver impulse in adults, if a parent’s brain was constantly overwhelmed by excessive positive feelings, they wouldn’t be able to do the practical tasks necessary to care for their child.

  • Interestingly, although cute aggression appears to be universal across cultures (many different languages have their own terms for it), not all individuals experience it. According to psychologist Oriana Aragón, one of the first researchers to investigate the phenomenon, around 50–60% of adults feel the urge to do things like grit their teeth and clench their hands into fists when confronted by unbearable adorableness.

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Margaret Lipman
By Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range of topics. Her articles cover essential areas such as finance, parenting, health and wellness, nutrition, educational strategies. Margaret's writing is guided by her passion for enriching the lives of her readers through practical advice and well-researched information.
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Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
With years of experience as an educator, Margaret Lipman produces thoughtful and informative content across a wide range...
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