Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault
We may have heard people say things along the lines of “It’s so cute! I just want to squeeze it!” or “Oh, my gosh—it is so adorable, I could scream.” Sometimes, something being small, cute, or sweet may elicit a strong instinctual response, though many people are unaware of why they may feel this way or the exact mechanisms behind the notion of something cute inspiring feelings that could be considered aggressive, such as squeezing or pinching. While it may not seem to be particularly aggressive to see, for example, a grandparent eagerly reaching for a grandchild’s cheek to pinch, even this simple gesture of affection and familiarity may involve components of cute aggression.
It’s important to note that cute aggression does not involve a desire to do actual harm and is in fact rooted in the brain becoming overwhelmed by a multitude of positive feelings of affection when seeing something perceived as “cute.” We’ll discuss that more in-depth later in the article.
There is a very real difference between cute aggression and abuse. If you or someone who know has experienced acts of aggression, abuse, or harm, please reach out to the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), or the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453).
First Up: What Constitutes Aggression?
Some may argue that aggression is any willful violence, while others may say that aggression can be unintentional and even harmless, provided that it is not acted upon. According to the American Psychological Association, aggression is defined as any behavior aimed at bringing harm to another person physically or psychologically. Aggression should not be confused with anger, as anger is the emotion one feels that may activate aggression. However, anger is not necessary for aggression to occur.
Simultaneously, a simple dictionary definition argues that aggression is more akin to hostility, regardless of whether or not it is physically or verbally expressed. This second definition of aggression is somewhat likely to be the type of aggression found in conjunction with finding something cute because most cute aggression does not involve squeezing something tightly enough to do physical damage or harm. However, cute aggression is not considered to be itself hostile in intent.
Broadly speaking, aggression can be accompanied by actual violence or may involve an aggressive impulse — the desire to bite, for instance, or hold something more tightly than would typically be considered appropriate. Aggression can be found in children, for example, when they experience frustration with a friend or sibling. It can be found in adults, both those with and without a history of violence. It is important to note, then, that aggression and violence are not necessarily synonymous. Aggression can exist without violence, though violence does not typically exist without aggression.
Now that we’ve broken down the more general meanings of aggression, let’s take a look at what, exactly, “cute” is.
Cute: A Simple Definition
The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of cute is “having a pleasing and usually youthful appearance.” Although it is not stated outright in the definition, cute is typically applied to small, or particularly diminutive, appearances. Babies, young animals, fluffy-haired creatures, and smiling faces are all regularly associated with the word “cute,” and may have the potential to inspire a touch of aggression in someone experiencing cuteness aggression or cute aggression. “Cute” is an adjective typically focused on describing appearances or physical characteristics, but can also be applied to sounds, traits, and affectations, such as a sneezing puppy with a high-pitched squeak, or an emphatic giggle from a child or adult.
Cuteness may also frequently be quantified by the perceived helplessness of an object or person. This is often why babies and young children are seen as cute – they may inspire a sense of protectiveness in some, which triggers a positive emotional response. This emotional response can just as easily elicit an “aw!” as it can an “I just want to smother it with kisses!” Although the desire to literally smother the object or person in question with kisses is likely not present, the aggressive feeling behind the phrase may be very real, though rooted in fondness rather than hostility or a yearning to cause actual harm.
Cuteness And Aggression: A Common Intersection
What is cute aggression? Although it may seem strange to feel a surge of aggression after seeing something that inspires a thought such as “how cute,” it is less uncommon than one may think. People may be tempted to hide their unbidden urge to squeeze, pinch, or otherwise somehow roughly handle something that they find adorable, sweet, or cute, as it feels quite contradictory an expression compared to how we feel. Cute aggression does not need to illicit shame, however, as it may come from a real, common, and easily explainable experience in the human brain. When the mind is overrun with positive emotion, it can trigger simultaneous feelings of overwhelm, which can lead to aggressive impulses.
According to one health professional, cute aggression is experienced because portions of the brain corresponding to emotions and rewards are triggered, which can essentially overload an individual’s mental faculties. To compensate, the body develops an aggressive response, which can drag down some of the overwhelmingly positive responses. This response triggers an impulse to squeeze the cute person or thing in question, or some other similarly aggressive behavior, such as biting.
Cute aggression, such as biting, squeezing, and tackling, is related to the intersection of emotional responses and reward centers. Some have postulated that this impulse serves an evolutionary purpose; if you were to continually stare at your child, in awe over how adorable they are, they could be attacked by a wild animal and suffer harm. If, however, your awe is punctuated by an aggressive instinct, you will be prepared to protect your child should something happen. This theory is entirely plausible, but as of yet is difficult to study and lacks data.
Cute aggression is quite common and affects an estimated 50 to 60% of adults. Experiencing cute aggression may inspire guilt or shame in some individuals, but is a common and, as we discussed above, natural thing to experience. Just as someone might shiver, shake, or bounce around following a spike of adrenaline, people may feel the need to squeeze, pop, or smack something when a spike of positive and protective feelings flood into their brain or body. This is natural and alright, so long as we don’t act on these impulses and actually harm the person or thing we are admiring.
When Cute Goes Wrong: Aggression's Pitfalls
Although cute aggression does not typically result in actual harm or expressed bursts of physical aggression, an increase in aggression or uncontrolled aggressive impulses can signal cause for alarm. People who experience aggressive feelings are not necessarily aggressive — most people can encounter aggressive feelings at some point or another.
What we should pay closer attention to, however, is how intense our aggressive impulses are, how well we are able to mitigate and control them, and how safe we feel on behalf of ourselves and others. Aggression is at the root of many crimes and inappropriate behaviors, but it rarely appears in a vacuum. Instead, aggression is often accompanied by other impulses, catalysts, or emotions before engaging in any form of violence. These can include betrayal, fear, jealousy, or outrage.
Feeling aggression regularly can disrupt normal, healthy functioning in an individual’s daily life, including workplace relationships and personal relationships. If you’re not sure whether or not the aggression you’re experiencing is normal or excessive, there are online surveys that can identify whether the aggression is typical or standard, or a potential cause for concern. Two simple tests can be found here and here.
Aggression is not abnormal; many people feel aggression at one point or another. It is not until aggression becomes intrusive to one’s life, begins to interfere in healthy functioning, or results in violence that it becomes a concern. This may include cuteness aggression that results in acting on aggressive impulses, or that may center around other forms of aggression entirely.
Feelings of aggression can be mitigated and potentially better understood using a variety of methods. These can include things like breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, engaging in physical activity several times a week like hiking or going to the gym, writing in a journal, or seeking out therapy.
Cute Aggression: In Summary
Why do we experience cute aggression? In short, we may be too overjoyed by something we perceive as cute or sweet, thus overwhelming the brain. This can result in a spike of something equally strong, like a sense of aggression, to bring us down and ground us in the present moment. While it may seem to be a strange pairing, highly positive, caretaking emotions and aggressive emotions are frequently linked as they are processed in the same part of the brain.
Parents may typically feel protective of their children in various situations, and display signs of possible aggression if they feel they are threatened. Wildlife, too, demonstrate some variation of combined affection and aggression, as both of these help them (and us!) to survive by ensuring the care and success of the next generation. The experience of both aggression and affection is not an overly complicated or even typically dangerous one, but is often a natural and normal experience.
Cute aggression is typically not a cause for concern. The type of aggression that is usually experienced during cute aggression is not one that often causes people to actually act out their feelings of aggression. Instead, it’s a type of trick of the brain to temper feelings that feel overwhelming or excessive. Cute aggression serves an important function in regulating emotional responses and rewards. Its function in regulating emotions is why it is so widespread an experience. Cute aggression does not necessarily indicate a faulty mental mechanism. On the contrary, it may actually indicate a normal, healthy mental mechanism that keeps emotional responses carefully in check.