The Neuroscience of Cute Aggression
The first thing I do when I get home from work each day is make a beeline for my cat Callie. As I hold her against my shoulder while she nuzzles my neck and purrs to greet me, I am overwhelmed with the urge to squeeze her so tightly that she pops like a baloon. Of course, because I love her and don’t actually want to harm her, I must settle for exclaiming through gritted teeth “you’re so fluffy I wanna squish you!” Perhaps you can relate to this experience with a pet of your own, or have felt the compulsion to pinch an adorable baby’s chubby cheeks. This phenomenon has been appropriately referred to as cute aggression, and neuroscientists are just beginning to look at what’s happening in the brain when we experience it.
Dimorphous Expression of Emotions
Cute aggression is an example of a concept described by social psychologist Dr. Oriana Aragón called dimorphous expressions of emotions. In general, expressions like smiling and crying are associated with singular emotions – happiness and sadness, respectively. However, we sometimes express our emotions in seemingly contradictory manners, for instance, when we cry tears of joy or laugh when we’re very angry. Dr. Aragón and her team believe the purpose of these dimorphous expressions is to regulate intense emotions that may feel overwhelming or unmanageable by balancing them with a seemingly contradictory expression . Interestingly, this may even have a physiological benefit. A 1998 study by Fredrickson and Levenson reported that over half of participants watching a sad movie smiled during the most sorrowful scenes, and while everyone’s heart rate increased during these scenes, the heart rate of those that smiled recovered faster than those who did not smile . Thus, it may be that experiences of cute aggression serve to help us avoid becoming overwhelmed and incapacitated by immense cuteness – I can definitely get behind this theory, as picking up my cat is quite overwhelming (in the best way).
Your Brain on Cute Aggression
In 2018, Drs. Stavropoulos and Alba performed the first study directly examining brain activity during cute aggression . They used a technique called electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity related to brain functioning through electrodes placed on the scalp. By examining changes in this electrical activity as people perform certain tasks, researchers can get an idea of what types of brain processes might be at play.
Dr. Stavropoulos’ team enrolled 54 participants (20 males and 34 females) between 18-40 years old. Participants first answered a 3-item questionnaire to assess the degree to which they tend to express dimorphous expressions of positive emotions. You can do this yourself by rating the following statements on a scale of 1-6, and taking the average (higher averages suggest that you are more likely to express positive emotions with negative expressions):
1) I cry while watching the happiest of movies
2) When I am feeling strong positive emotions, I express with negative expressions
3) When I am feeling a strong positive emotion (for example, extreme happiness, strong sense of relief, strong feeling of connection to others, etc.), my expression can look like I am feeling a negative emotion (for example I might cry, or scream as though in fear even though I am happy or excited).
Participants then went through 4 sessions of EEG. In each session, they watched 32 images (8 images repeated 4 times in random order) flash across a computer screen. Each session had images of a particular theme: “more cute animals” (read: baby animals), “less cute animals” (read: adult animals), “more cute babies”, and “less cute babies”. After each EEG session, participants rated their reactions to the images they saw in 5 categories: cute aggression, overwhelmed by emotion, approachability, appraisal, and feelings of caretaking (the statements they rated are shown in the figure below).
Unsurprisingly, participants reported higher ratings in all 5 categories after viewing baby animals compared to adult animals. Perhaps surprisingly, no difference in ratings was found between more and less cute babies (a note on this later). Further, the authors found a relationship between how cute participants thought the images were (appraisal ratings) and their experiences of cute aggression, and that this relationship was affected by feelings of overwhelm. In other words, those who thought the images of babies and animals were more cute, and reported feeling overwhelmed, were more likely to experience cute aggression. Feelings of caretaking were also related to cute aggression, especially for those who gave higher ratings for appraisal and feeling overwhelmed. These findings provide direct support for the hypothesis that cute aggression is a self-regulation technique to prevent our emotions from getting too extreme.
To examine brain activity, the authors looked at electrical patterns called event related potentials, or ERPs, which are known changes in activity that occur in response to specific types of stimuli. They found interesting effects on two ERPs: the N200 (a negative wave peaking around 200 ms after a stimulus), which is typically thought to reflect the brain processing something of emotional significance, and RewP, which is related to reward processing.
Viewing baby animals brought a larger emotional response (measured by the N200) compared to viewing adult animals, and participants who showed a stronger emotional response to baby animals were more likely to report dimorphous expression of emotions (expressing positive emotions with negative expressions). While there was not a direct relationship between emotional responses and cute aggression, those who showed a stronger emotional response and reported feeling overwhelmed were more likely to experience cute aggression.
Perhaps more interestingly, they also found that participants who showed a greater reward processing response (RewP) to viewing baby animals gave higher ratings of cute aggression during that session, and this was especially true for those who reported stronger feelings of appraisal, caretaking, and feeling overwhelmed. These findings suggest that our experiences of cute aggression involve both emotional and reward processing in our brains, and the details of these relationships are complex.
You may be wondering why most of their findings applied to viewing baby animals, but not more cute human babies. This may be due to the fact that the more cute (baby) and less cute (adult) animal images were of entirely different animals, whereas the the more and less cute baby images of were the same babies, only edited to emphasize or de-emphasize their cute features (big eyes, full cheeks, etc). With much more subtle changes, it may be harder to detect significant changes in brain activity. It’s also possible that we are especially evolved to think all baby humans are cute so that we are more likely to care for them. More studies accounting for these differences are needed in order to clarify these questions.
I Can’t Handle the Cuteness!
It’s not hard to imagine why emotional regulation is important, especially in terms of avoiding strong negative emotions. But it might be more challenging to understand why we would need to regulate extreme positive emotions as well. It’s possible that dimorphous expression evolved primarily to regulate negative emotion, but ended up as a more widespread mechanism that applies to all extreme emotional states. It’s also possible that sustaining high levels of any particular emotion could have potentially harmful physiological effects on our bodies [4,5]. I find it helpful to think about why we have such a strong response to cuteness in the first place. A previous post by NeuWriter Kerin Higa discusses the research and theories on this topic, including how our responses to cute things may serve to encourage caretaking and socialization in general. Getting excited about cute things seems to be important for us as a species.
If you are like me and find yourself having aggressive thoughts when seeing a cute animal or baby, crying at a wedding, or smiling and laughing when nervous, there’s nothing wrong with you! If anything, this means that you feel things strongly, and your brain is simply trying to help you by balancing out those strong emotions.
 Aragón O, Clark M, Dyer R, and Bargh J (2015). Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion: Displays of Both Care and Aggression in Response to Cute Stimuli. Psychological Science, 26(3)
 Fredrickson, B. L., & Levenson, R. W. (1998). Positive emotions speed recovery from cardiovascular sequelae of negative emotion. Cognition & Emotion, 12, 191–220.
 Stavropoulos K and Alba L (2018). “It’s so Cute I Could Crush It!”: Understanding Neural Mechanisms of Cute Aggression. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12(300)
 Davidson RJ, Putnam KM, Larson CL. Dysfunction in the neural circuitry of emotion regulation–a possible prelude to violence. Science. 2000;289(2000):591–4.
 Etkin A, Büchel C, Gross JJ. The neural bases of emotion regulation. Nat Rev Neurosci [Internet]. Nature Publishing Group; 2015;16(11):693–700. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26481098
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