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December 31, 2018

Too much cuteness confuses the brain and can lead to aggressive thoughts, study finds

When your natural response to cute puppy videos is to want to squeeze it

Mental Health Wellness
cute puppy pexels Pixabay/Pexels

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If you spend your time scrolling an Instagram page that’s curated to perfectly suit your needs of adorable animal photos and videos, funny memes and celebrity gossip, you may want to keep in mind that scrolling through too much of the seemingly mood-boosting cuteness can backfire.

In fact, many scientists believe that encountering too much cuteness can result in something called "cute aggression."

Apparently those harmless thoughts of “OMG that’s so cute, I just want to eat it” can lead to less innocent “I want to crush it” or “I want to squeeze it until pops” or “I want to punch it," Katherine Stavropoulos, a psychologist in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside, tells NPR.

About half of all adults have those thoughts sometimes, says Stavropoulos, who published a study about the phenomenon in December in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.


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This behavior is "frustration about an over-the-top reaction that we can't really act upon,” Anna Brooks, a senior lecturer in cognitive neuroscience from Southern Cross University, tells Vice. And not only that, but everyone feels it far more acutely when they can't physically touch the animal they're seeing.

It’s worth noting, however, that Stavropoulos doesn’t actually think that these people would actually try to take out Bambi. "When people feel this way, it's with no desire to cause harm," Stavropoulos says. The thoughts appear to be an involuntary response to being overwhelmed by a positive emotion.

While Stavropoulos is not the first to discover cute aggression — that was researchers at Yale University in 2015 — her study was the first to investigate what it looks like in the brain. So she and a colleague recorded the electrical activity in the brains of 54 young adults as they looked at images of animals and people.

The images included grown-ups and babies. Some had been manipulated to look less appealing, while others were made extra adorable with big cheeks, big eyes and small noses, according to the study, which found that for the entire group of participants, cuter creatures were associated with greater activity in brain areas involved in emotion. But the more cute aggression a person felt, the more activity the scientists saw in the brain's reward system.

These findings suggest that people who think about squishing puppies appear to be driven by two powerful forces in the brain. "It's not just reward and it's not just emotion," Stavropoulos says. "Both systems in the brain are involved in this experience of cute aggression."

Since both systems are being called upon in reaction to cuteness, our brains get a little overwhelmed — which leads it to start producing aggressive thoughts. Scientists suspect that the appearance of these negative emotions helps people get control of the rioting positive ones.

"Dopamine is released, and that makes us feel good. But interestingly, this process also is involved when we act out on aggressive tendencies. It's possible that there's some cross-wiring of the response to cuteness and aggression being mediated by dopamine release," says Brooks. 

“People who, you know, want to pinch the babies cheeks and growl at the baby are also people who are more likely to cry at the wedding or cry when the baby's born or have nervous laughter," says Oriana Aragón, an assistant professor at Clemson University, a member of the Yale team that gave cute aggression its name.

For a very unofficial diagnosis of cuteness aggression, Buzzfeed has you covered.

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