A blog about experiential learning, global adventures & all things Broadreach
Why Cute, Tiny Animals Make You Want to Scream
By Honey D. Whitney, Broadreach Instructor
Quick poll, readers! While in the presence of a tiny, possibly fluffy animal, have you experienced the following sensations:
– a laser beam-focus on the minute animal in front of you – a need to squeeze something within the immediate vicinity, usually the animal at hand – an urge to squeal, growl, or proclaim to the world, “It’s so fluffy, I’m going to die!!’
If you said yes to any or all of these experiences, you may suffer from an incurable case of “Cute Aggression.”
WHAT IS CUTE AGGRESSION?
Cute aggression refers to the almost-overwhelming urge to do violence to an object that we find incredibly adorable. The term was coined in 2013 by a research team from Yale University, led by then-graduate students Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragon. Their team ran an experiment studying how people reacted to animal pictures to determine if this reportedly belligerent behavior toward charming little creatures was really all that prevalent. A total of 109 participants looked at a bunch of pictures, either deemed funny, cute, or neutral, and afterwards were asked to rate their reactions to each. Ultimately, the cuter the picture was regarded, the more violent people seemed to be in their reaction to it, based on verbal responses. “So cute I could… die, eat you up, kill you, maul you,” Aragon said of some of the participants’ answers. “It’s just all this violence.”
The results of the first study only lead to more questions, as science most often does, so a follow-up study was performed. Test subjects were shown a similar series of photographs to the first study, again labeled as funny, cute, or neutral, and this time were given a piece of bubble wrap during the experiment and told to have-at-it while looking at the pictures. Overall, the participants popped more bubbles while looking at the cute pictures, averaging 120 bubbles popped, compared with the average 80 and 100 bubbles popped for the neutral and funny pictures, respectively. This study lead more credence to a physically aggressive reaction to cuteness.
Okay, so a bunch of random people popped lots of bubble wrap and said things like, “I just want to eat its’ face” while looking at pictures of baby animals – so what does it all mean? It actually leads to interesting conclusions about how the brain regulates itself in times of high emotional stimulation.
Previous research suggests that cute pictures brought on only extreme positive emotions, but Dyer and Aragon’s research brings a few more hypotheses to the table. First, it’s possible that viewing a picture of a cute puppy brings out a need to nurture. When the brain realizes that it is denied this urge since the subject is not real, frustration, followed by aggression, comes in with the inability to physically reach through a photograph and cuddle that puppy senseless.
The first explanation does not account for the reported appearance of the cute aggression phenomena while actually in the presence of fluffy ducklings, newborn sloths or tiny human babies. Another explanation may be that the brain simply cannot handle that much positive stimulation and turns some of it into the opposite, a negative emotion, which for most people ends up being aggression. It’s along a similar vein to some people becoming so happy, they start crying (look to pretty much every single proposal video put on YouTube to see this happening). Cute aggression essentially turns your brain from a raging inferno of feels to a lovely fireplace of contented emotion, purr-fect for snuggling with that tiny kitten in front of you.
In conclusion, don’t be ashamed if you let out a squeak or two when you see your neighbor’s new puppy walking down the street; cute aggression happens to the best of us and is our brain’s way of actually helping us maintain our ability to even.
Honey Whitney is an ecologist, science communicator, Broadreach instructor/junkie and has a M.S. in Ecology and Conservation Biology and a B.S. in Marine Biology. When not gallivanting off to far-flung places with Broadreach, she teaches Floridians not to pollute their local waters (check out BlueLifeFL). She wrote this piece with her cat in her lap the entire time.