The reason puppies are so cute you want to eat them—and its backed by science

Jan 3, 2019

If you’ve ever come across the most adorable puppy or baby and just wanted to squeeze it, pinch its cute cheeks, or even bite its cute button nose, you should know that there is a perfectly scientific reason behind that urge.

It turns out that there is a name for that particularly snuggly form of aggression: It’s called cute aggression, and it’s very common—so common, in fact, that it seems to be wired into our brains.

Yet, no harm is intended in this type of response. According to science, it may be a type of dimorphic behavior adapted to ensure the protection of our young, as studies have shown.

Cute aggression was the term used in a Yale behavioral psychology study in 2015, says assistant professor at University of California Katherine Stavropoulos, who is also a licensed clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience.

Recently, Stavropoulos has looked into the neuroscience behind cute aggression though a study involving electrophysiology, which evaluates the electrical activity in people’s brains in response to certain stimuli.

They selected 54 participants to undergo tests, who all agreed to wear caps lined with electrodes to measure their brain activity, and they were then subjected to 4 blocks of 32 images on a computer screen, each showing varying degrees of “cuteness.”

They were shown pictures of babies, some with features augmented to heighten their cuteness (enlarging eyes, cheeks, and foreheads) and some unaltered (less cute), baby animals (cute), and adult animals (less cute).

Each participant was then asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how overwhelmed they felt by the cute images, corresponding to statements like “I can’t stand it!” and “I can’t handle it,” and how compelled they were to take care of them in line with statements like “I want to hold it!” and “I want to protect it,” so as to measure their cute aggression levels (as per the prior Yale study).

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“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.”

As far as they know, the study is the first-ever to show evidence of brain activity, both emotional and reward systems involvement, as a basis for cute aggression.

Cute aggression is thought to be a dimorphic expression, like how some people report crying when happy or laughing when sad, and is thought to be a “mechanism for regulating overwhelming positive emotions” by expressing the opposite emotion, stated their report. It is supposed that such a response would prevent a parent from being “incapacitated by positive feelings,” which might inhibit or prevent caregiving.

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