For some it's adorable puppies and kittens; for others, it's chubby baby cheeks. But when faced with something so ridiculously cute, we can't help ourselves. We have an oddly aggressive urge to squeeze it.
"We think it's about high positive-affect, an approach orientation and almost a sense of lost control," researcher Rebecca Dyer told Live Science. "You know, you can't stand it, you can't handle it, that kind of thing."
Now a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Colgate University, Dyer was a graduate student at Yale University when she became fascinated by what she called "cute aggression." She and another student were discussing how when you see an adorable image online, you often have the desire to smush it. In reality, you should want to coddle and take care of it.
So, Dyer decided to find out if this sort of cute rage was really a thing. She and her colleagues recruited just over 100 study participants and had them look at cute, funny and neutral animals. Cute animals might be fluffy kittens or puppies, while a funny animal could be a dog traveling with its head out the car window, ears and jowls flapping in the wind. A neutral image might be an older animal with a serious expression.
The participants rated each image on degrees of cuteness or funniness, as well as how much each made them want to lose control. Did it make them say, "I can't handle it" or make them want to squeeze something when they saw it, for example?
Dyer and her colleagues found that the cuter an animal was, the more participants said they wanted to smush something.
Cuteness and bubble wrap
To make sure those verbal comments translated into real feelings, the researchers then brought in subjects and asked them to view slideshows of cute, funny or neutral animals while given a roll of bubble wrap. Those who watched cute animals popped 120 bubbles on average, compared to 100 popped when watching neutral animals, and 80 for funny ones. The popping, in a sense, mimicked the urge to squeeze.
Dyer's study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science, doesn't conclude why we want to squeeze the life out of adorable things. It could be that we can't care for the creature (it's a photo after all) so we're frustrated and want to smush it, or it could be that we're trying so hard not to hurt it that we almost do. (Like a child who picks up a cat and squeezes it too tightly.)
A new study tackled Dyer's question by trying to determine if a person's brain activity would reflect their urge to squeeze something cute. Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside, evaluated Dyer's Yale study and hypothesized that a person's brain activity for cute aggression is linked to the brain's reward system.
Stavropoulos conducted a similar test by showing people a variety of images of cute babies and animals while they wore hats fitted with electrodes. Her team measured the participants' brain activity before, during and after seeing a photograph. "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."
For some people, experiencing a strong emotion is followed by “an expression of what one would think is an opposing feeling," co-author Oriana Aragon, now with Clemson University, told National Geographic.
"So you [may] have tears of joy, nervous laughter or wanting to squeeze something that you think is unbearably cute" — even if it's a sweet, young animal or child you'd normally want to cuddle or protect.
Extreme levels of emotion overwhelm us, and we simply don't know what to do.
"It might be that how we deal with high positive-emotion is to sort of give it a negative pitch somehow," Dyer told Live Science. "That sort of regulates, keeps us level and releases that energy."
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in September 2017.