Cute aggression may be a neural mechanism that mediates feelings of being overwhelmed


Have you ever looked at a puppy and had the urge to squeeze or even bite it?

Or felt compelled to pinch a baby’s cheeks, albeit without a desire to harm it?

If you answered yes to either question, you’ve experienced a phenomenon called cute aggression — and you’re far from alone..

Until now, research exploring how and why cute aggression occurs has been the domain of behavioral psychology, said Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education at the University of California, Riverside.

But recently Stavropoulos, a licensed clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience, has taken formal study of the phenomenon a few steps further.

In her research, Stavropoulos uses electrophysiology to evaluate surface-level electrical activity that arises from neurons firing in people’s brains.

By studying that activity, she gauges neural responses to a range of external stimuli.

Stavropoulos said she first heard the term “cute aggression” after a team of Yale University psychologists released research related to the phenomenon in 2015.

“The Yale researchers initially found that people reported feeling cute aggression more in response to baby animals versus adult animals,” Stavropoulos said.

“But even beyond that, people reported feeling cute aggression more in response to picture of human babies that had been digitally enhanced to appear more infantile, and therefore ‘more cute,’ by enlarging features like their eyes, cheeks, and foreheads.”

After poring over the Yale research, Stavropoulos wondered whether there was a neural component to cute aggression.

If people reported experiencing urges to squeeze, crush, or even bite creatures they found cute, would their brains also reflect patterns of activity that could be tied to those urges?

Stavropoulos hypothesized that the brains of people who reported experiencing cute aggression would, in fact, provide evidence of detectable activity.

She suggested the activity might be related to the brain’s reward system, which deals with motivation, feelings of “wanting,” and pleasure, or to its emotion system, which handles emotional processing – or, more likely, to both.

Stavropoulos and UCR doctoral student Laura Alba recruited 54 study participants between the ages of 18 and 40, all of whom agreed to wear caps outfitted with electrodes. While wearing the caps, participants looked at four blocks of 32 photographs divided into categories:

  • Cute (enhanced) babies
  • Less cute (non-enhanced) babies
  • Cute (baby) animals
  • Less cute (adult) animals

After viewing each block on a computer screen, participants were then shown a set of statements and asked to rate how much they agreed with them on a scale of 1 to 10.

The survey was designed to assess how cute participants found each block of photographs – known as “appraisal” – and how much cute aggression they were experiencing in response.

Participants also rated how overwhelmed they felt after viewing the photos (“I can’t handle it!” and “I can’t stand it!”) and whether they felt compelled to take care of what they had just viewed (“I want to hold it!” and “I want to protect it!”).

Stavropoulos said the statements were the same ones used in Yale researcher Oriana Aragón’s groundbreaking 2015 study of cute aggression.

Overall, participants self-reported more significant feelings of cute aggression, being overwhelmed, appraisal, and caretaking toward cute (baby) animals than toward less cute (adult) animals. Among the two categories of babies – cute (enhanced) and less cute (non-enhanced) — the researchers did not observe the same pattern.

Using electrophysiology, Stavropoulos also measured study participants’ brain activity before, during, and after viewing the sets of images.

To her knowledge, the study’s results, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, are the first to confirm a neural basis for cute aggression.

Based on the neural activity she observed in participants who experienced cute aggression, Stavropoulos’s findings offer direct evidence of both the brain’s reward system and emotion system being involved in the phenomenon.

“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.”

Another result that Stavropoulos said lends weight to prior theories:

The relationship between how cute something is and how much cute aggression someone experiences toward it appears to be tied to how overwhelmed that person is feeling.

“Essentially, for people who tend to experience the feeling of ‘not being able to take how cute something is,’ cute aggression happens,” Stavropoulos said.

“Our study seems to underscore the idea that cute aggression is the brain’s way of ‘bringing us back down’ by mediating our feelings of being overwhelmed.”

Stavropoulos likened this process of mediation to an evolutionary adaptation. Such an adaptation may have developed as a means of ensuring people are able to continue taking care of creatures they consider particularly cute.

Risultati immagini per Cute aggression may be a neural mechanism that mediates feelings of being overwhelmed

Cute aggression is the brain’s way of tempering the response to overwhelming cuteness. The image is in the public domain.

“For example, if you find yourself incapacitated by how cute a baby is — so much so that you simply can’t take care of it — that baby is going to starve,” Stavropoulos said.

“Cute aggression may serve as a tempering mechanism that allows us to function and actually take care of something we might first perceive as overwhelmingly cute.”

In the future, Stavropoulos hopes to use electrophysiology to study the neural bases of cute aggression in a variety of populations and groups, such as mothers with postpartum depression, people with autism spectrum disorder, and participants with and without babies or pets.

“I think if you have a child and you’re looking at pictures of cute babies, you might exhibit more cute aggression and stronger neural reactions,” she said. “The same could be true for people who have pets and are looking pictures of cute puppies or other small animals.”

The urge people get to squeeze or bite cute things, albeit without desire to cause harm, is known as “cute aggression.”

Using electrophysiology (ERP), we measured components related to emotional salience and reward processing.

Participants aged 18–40 years (n = 54) saw four sets of images: cute babies, less cute babies, cute (baby) animals, and less cute (adult) animals.

On measures of cute aggression, feeling overwhelmed by positive emotions, approachability, appraisal of cuteness, and feelings of caretaking, participants rated more cute animals significantly higher than less cute animals.

There were significant correlations between participants’ self-report of behaviors related to cute aggression and ratings of cute aggression in the current study.

N200: A significant effect of “cuteness” was observed for animals such that a larger N200 was elicited after more versus less cute animals. A significant correlation between N200 amplitude and the tendency to express positive emotions in a dimorphous manner (e.g., crying when happy) was observed.

RewP: For animals and babies separately, we subtracted the less cute condition from the more cute condition. A significant correlation was observed between RewP amplitude to cute animals and ratings of cute aggression toward cute animals. RewP amplitude was used in mediation models.

Mediation Models: Using PROCESS (Hayes, 2018), mediation models were run. For both animals and babies, the relationship between appraisal and cute aggression was significantly mediated by feeling overwhelmed.

For cute animals, the relationship between N200 amplitude and cute aggression was significantly mediated by feeling overwhelmed. For cute animals, there was significant serial mediation for RewP amplitude through caretaking, to feeling overwhelmed, to cute aggression, and RewP amplitude through appraisal, to feeling overwhelmed, to cute aggression. Our results indicate that feelings of cute aggression relate to feeling overwhelmed and feelings of caretaking. In terms of neural mechanisms, cute aggression is related to both reward processing and emotional salience.


Cute aggression is defined as the urge some people get to squeeze, crush, or bite cute things, albeit without any desire to cause harm. 

Aragón et al. (2015) initially operationalized the phenomenon of “cute aggression” through individual self-reports while viewing cute stimuli.

The authors investigated cute aggression using pictures of baby humans and animals via an online survey.

Findings indicated that for infantile babies (e.g., images that had been altered to have large eyes and chubby cheeks; Sherman et al., 2013) and baby animals, there was a relationship between being overwhelmed by positive feelings and the expression of cute aggression (Aragón et al., 2015).

Cute aggression has been discussed as an example of dimorphous expression of emotions.

Dimorphous expression refers to someone experiencing a strong emotion of one type (e.g., happy or sad) but expressing the opposite emotion.

For example, some people report laughing when they are sad, or crying when they are happy.

Typically, expressions of emotions are broad, such as smiling when happy or frowning when sad (Aragón, 2017Aragón and Bargh, 2018).

However, the emotions we express to very cute stimuli are complex overlapping emotions that communicate one category of emotion (Aragón, 2016).

Most of the feelings for cute aggression can be viewed as contradictory, such as in the event of receiving a new puppy and simultaneously crying and smiling.

Authors hypothesize that “cute aggression” may serve as a bottom-up mechanism for regulating overwhelming positive emotions.

In support of this hypothesis, Aragón et al. (2015) found that the relationship between ratings of how cute something is, and cute aggression was mediated by the experience of being overwhelmed by positive feelings.

The authors posited that evolutionarily, it would not have been adaptive to become incapacitated by positive feelings in response to a very cute baby who required caretaking.

Therefore, the dimorphous expression of cute aggression may occur to regulate these overwhelmingly positive emotions (Aragón et al., 2015).

Further evidence for this was observed in the relationship between appraisal of cuteness (e.g., how cute something is), expressions of caretaking, and feeling overwhelmed.

Behavioral data suggest that appraisal and expressions of caretaking are mediated by being overwhelmed, and that feelings of cute aggression and caretaking are highly correlated (Aragón et al., 2015).

Responding to the cuteness of an animal or baby is not a new phenomenon.

From an evolutionary perspective, a human’s ability to respond to the cuteness of an infant or animal triggers innate processes for caregiving, known as the baby schema (Lorenz, 1943Lorenz and Martin, 1971Hildebrandt and Fitzgerald, 1979).

Many studies have shown that viewing images of babies with round faces and high foreheads were perceived as cute and elicited a higher response for caretaking when compared to babies with narrow faces and low foreheads (Glocker et al., 2009a,b).

Moreover, the appearance of cuteness has also elicited caretaking behaviors among adults, even before becoming parents (Volk and Quinsey, 2002Esposito et al., 2014).

For instance, in a study using a hypothetical adoption scenario, findings suggest that cuteness and health of the child was the primary reason for adopting a child when compared to physical resemblance and happiness level among women (Volk and Quinsey, 2002).

Although cuteness was the primary reason for women to adopt a child, men in the study reported physical resemblance as the primary reason, followed by cuteness.

Cuteness has also been shown to elicit social engagement, suggesting that humans may assess the value of sociability in children (Sherman and Haidt, 2011).

For instance, more affection and playfulness were shown among mothers of cuter infants when compared to mothers with less cute infants (Langlois et al., 1995).

Indeed, Sherman and Haidt (2011) suggested that cuteness evoked social behaviors that are similar to caretaking (e.g., touching, holding) which provides evidence for the indirect association of social engagement and caretaking behavior. Moreover, assessing the value of sociability in a child may provide evidence as to why non-parents report caretaking behaviors when viewing cute infants (Sherman and Haidt, 2011).

Interestingly, previous research indicates that the concept of a baby schema triggering a “cute response” extends to animals (e.g., Archer and Monton, 2011Little, 2012).

Behavioral evidence suggests that both children and adults rated highly infantile images of babies, puppies, and kittens as more cute than the less infantile versions of all three species (Borgi et al., 2014).

Further, this effect was particularly pronounced for pet owners, which suggests that familiarity with common household pets (e.g., dogs and cats) is important.

Another study measured brain activity in mothers while viewing images of their own child vs. an unfamiliar child, as well as while viewing images of their own dog vs. an unfamiliar dog.

The authors found increased activation in brain areas related to reward, social cognition, and affiliation in response to both familiar children and dogs (e.g., own child, own dog) compared to unfamiliar children and dogs (Stoeckel et al., 2014).

Although not directly related to “cuteness” findings from Stoeckel et al. (2014) suggest the importance of familiarity when measuring reward-related brain activity when viewing both humans and animals.

Taken together, these studies provide evidence that the concept of a baby schema extends to animals, and is not specific to human babies.

It is important to note, however, that these studies did not explore behavioral ratings or brain activity related to cute aggression, but rather measured behavioral responses of cuteness and brain activity in regions related to reward and social affiliation.

Although no previous studies (to our knowledge) have investigated the neural underpinnings of cute aggression, previous research has been conducted on the neural reward response to more versus less cute babies in nulliparous women (Glocker et al., 2009b).

The authors found that more cute babies (images manipulated in accordance with Lorenz’ ‘baby schema’) elicited increased activity in the nucleus accumbens, which is a critical structure in the mesocorticolimbic reward system.

The current study was designed to identify and measure neural underpinnings of cute aggression.

Neural correlates for emotional salience and reward may provide insight into this phenomenon. Using electrophysiology, specifically event-related potentials (ERPs), the current study measured neural components related to emotions (N200), reward anticipation (SPN), and reward processing (RewP).


The N200 is a negative ERP component peaking 200–300 ms post stimulus (Squires et al., 19761977).

Numerous studies have shown that the N200 is related to the emotional content of stimuli (Balconi and Lucchiari, 2005Balconi and Pozzoli, 2009Kanske and Kotz, 20102011). Kanske and Kotz (2011) used an emotional valence flanker task where participants responded to the print color of the target word where it was either neutral or emotional and found a difference in N200 amplitude for emotional versus neutral trials.

Similar findings for the N200 have been observed for facial expressions, with larger amplitude N200s observed after emotional faces compared to neutral faces (Streit et al., 2000Herrmann et al., 2002Balconi and Pozzoli, 2003). Taken together, these findings have identified the N200 as a neural correlate of emotional significance. Given that cute aggression is hypothesized to be a response to strong positive emotions, the N200 is a plausible target when exploring neural correlates of cute aggression.


Another way to examine neural correlates of cute aggression is to explore reward-related ERP components.

The stimulus preceding negativity (SPN) is a slow wave component that reflects the expectation of reward stimuli (Damen and Brunia, 1987).

The significance of the SPN is typically conceptualized as emotional anticipation (Chwilla and Brunia, 1991Kotani et al., 20012003), and is thought to reflect activity in the insula (Kotani et al., 20092015).

The SPN is typically measured after participants make a motor response and before feedback onset in a decision-making task (Brunia et al., 2012).

The SPN is sensitive to reward magnitude and is consistently larger in reward versus no-reward conditions (Kotani et al., 20012003Ohgami et al., 2004).

Though the SPN is typically measured in decision-making tasks, previous research has reported that the SPN can be observed when anticipating affective upcoming stimuli without a task (Takeuchi et al., 2005Poli et al., 2007Parker and Gilbert, 2008)

For instance, Poli et al. (2007) used a S1–S2 paradigm in which the content of the forthcoming emotional pictures (S2) could be predicted by S1.

Findings indicated that there was a larger SPN when anticipating strongly affective pictures when compared to neutral pictures. Given the relevance of the SPN to reward and affective anticipation, we identified this component as potentially relevant to cute aggression. To our knowledge, no research has evaluated the association between the SPN, cute stimuli, and expressions of aggression.


The RewP response is a positive component that peaks 300 ms after rewarding stimuli (Miltner et al., 1997).

Numerous studies have shown that the RewP is elicited by positive feedback (Baker and Holroyd, 2011Foti et al., 2011) and suppressed by negative feedback (Feedback Negativity; FN; Bress et al., 2012) for both adults and adolescents.

Previous research on losses and gains has suggests that the RewP was larger when associated with actual rewards and smaller for non-rewards (Carlson et al., 2011Bress and Hajcak, 2013).

The RewP predicted individual differences among sensitivity levels for rewards when evaluated using both behavioral and self-report measures (Bress and Hajcak, 2013).

For instance, among college students, higher scores on the Reward Responsiveness Scale (RRS; Van den Berg et al., 2010) were correlated with a heightened RewP response on a bias reward detection task (Pizzagalli et al., 2005), suggesting an increased interest in rewarding feedback (Bress and Hajcak, 2013).

Overall, findings suggest that the RewP is a neural correlate of positive and negative reward stimuli (for a review, see Proudfit, 2015). To date, no research has investigated the relationship between cute images and the RewP.

Current Study

This study aimed to extend the behavioral findings of Aragón et al. (2015) by examining the neural correlates of cute aggression.

We are unaware of any study to date that has measured brain activity related to cute aggression or related brain activity to participants’ report. We hypothesized that amplitude of the N200 when viewing “more cute” pictures would relate to expressions of cute aggression either in mediation models or simple correlations.

A second potential mechanism for cute aggression relates to reward anticipation and processing. We hypothesized that expressions of cute aggression might be related to finding stimuli particularly rewarding.

As the current study involved passive viewing (rather than an overt task), we hypothesized that expressions of cute aggression might relate to SPN amplitude, Reward positivity (RewP) amplitude, or both. We also measured whether individuals’ self-reports about actions related to cute aggression were correlated with behavioral ratings of cute aggression in the current study. Finally, we explored the relationship between brain and behavioral ratings using both correlations and mediation models (e.g., whether the relationship between N200 amplitude and cute aggression is mediated by feeling overwhelmed).

Media Contacts: 
Katherine Stavropoulos – Frontiers
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
““It’s so Cute I Could Crush It!”: Understanding Neural Mechanisms of Cute Aggression”. Katherine K. M. Stavropoulos* and Laura A. Alba.
Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00300


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