'Cute Aggression' Is A Real Thing––And Yeah, You Probably Have It

by Colleen Dilthey Thomas
Originally Published: 
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When my uncle was a baby, my grandmother thought that he was the most delicious butterball that she had ever seen, so she bit him. It wasn’t hard or in a crazy cannibalistic way, she just loved him so much that she couldn’t control herself. I thought that perhaps it ran in the family veins. Because I have to be honest, I have had the urge to bite, pinch and squeeze my children from time to time. I had one baby who was a 10-pounder and his chubby thighs were just begging for me to take a chunk of them. Turns out my grandmother and I aren’t crazy people; it’s like a thing. And it’s totally natural.

If you want to get all fancy and scientific, “dimorphous expression” is the name for wanting to squeeze the pudding out of your baby, or someone else’s. However, you can just call it cute aggression. And if you’ve got it, you’re in good company; about 50% of people have this particular trait.

According to Elemental, Oriana Aragon, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Clemson University, began studying dimorphus expression when she was a graduate student at Yale. It was a simple hypothesis, people instinctively cry during happy moments to regulate their positive emotions, which overwhelm them. Researchers have long said that it isn’t sustainable to be emotionally and physically overwhelmed, so the brain counteracts those feelings with a contradictory feeling to balance things out.

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“For instance, maybe you’ve thought or said “I just can’t” when you saw an adorable baby — Aragon calls this a “baby high.” The sudden desire to squeeze the baby could help regulate that sense of overwhelmedness (“I just can’t”), essentially bringing you down from the “high” so you can effectively take care of the baby.”

Aragon was fascinated and started a little experiment. She showed participants pictures of cute babies and asked them how overwhelmed they felt by the baby’s cuteness — whether they wanted to take care of the baby, or whether they just wanted to go straight for those cheeks and give them a pinch.

If you have cute aggression, it will come as no surprise that the cuter the participants thought the babies were the more overwhelmed they became and the really wanted to get aggressive with that baby. They also said that the more overwhelmed and aggressive they felt, they more they wanted to take care of and hold that baby. I am telling you, I feel this in my soul.

Katherine Stavropoulous, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside School of Education, conducted her own research and went straight to the brain to discover what parts were involved. She found a significant relationship between feeling overwhelmed, cute aggression, and caretaking behaviors by uncovering the specific parts of the brain involved in cute aggression.


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She surveyed participants about the same responses to cute things as Aragon’s study, and found a link to the cute aggression and the overwhelming desire to take care of a baby are scientifically linked. So you’re not going batty crazy if you clench your fists and grit your teeth when you see a tiny cherub and instantly want to hug it and love it and rock it to sleep, your brain just works that way. It’s science. But if you don’t feel butterflies at the sight of a baby, you are not a monster.

“It’s not that people who don’t feel cute aggression don’t want to take care of things; they just don’t feel overwhelmed by the cuteness,” Stavropoulos says.

Aragon noted that for many generations groups of individuals took care of babies. It was multigenerational and social, so it makes sense that we have these innate feelings of wanting to care for someone else’s baby. It’s truly a natural thing.

Stavropoulos thinks that cute aggression is evolutionary. A 2009 study of women who viewed cute babies showed that the women were more careful, deliberate and slow. She believes that this could signal that cute aggression has actually developed over time and that it activates caretaking activities. And we know that when a baby is well taken care of, it lives a good life.

So what does this all mean? If you see that gorgeous baby with the chubby cheeks and thighs to match, it is OK to want to squeeze them tight and nuzzle their necks. And it you feel an overwhelming urge to hold them and rock them and change their diapers and feed them, you are totally normal. And if you don’t, that’s OK too. It doesn’t make you a better person because you have cute aggression, and you are not some sort of freak if you have it.

We need all kinds of baby-loving people in this world, the overwhelmed aggressors who go in for the pinch, and those who protect and hold the baby close. You are equally important and loving. I have to be honest — I am the aggressive type. If I see your darling baby coming my way, you might just want to turn around.

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