Can’t help but squeeze that adorable little puppy? That’s ‘cute aggression,’ study says

This cute yellow Lab puppy is learning to hunt truffles on California farm

Tim Boatman is training his yellow Lab puppy, Stella, to search for black truffles growing on the roots of oak trees on his Templeton, California, farm.
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Tim Boatman is training his yellow Lab puppy, Stella, to search for black truffles growing on the roots of oak trees on his Templeton, California, farm.

It turns out there’s a reason you can’t control yourself around a cute little animal.

It’s called “cute aggression” — and researchers behind a new study in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience say they have a reason for why that happens. They define it as the urge to “squeeze, crush, or bite cute things, albeit without any desire to cause harm.”

The phenomenon happens because you just can’t handle how darn cute that puppy really is, study co-author Katherine Stavropoulos said in a press release from the University of California, Riverside, where she is an assistant professor.

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

Sacramento SPCA employees wash foster puppies in February 2018. These little pups were about a month shy of being available for adoption.

“Cute aggression” was first detailed in a 2015 study in the journal Psychological Science.

Researchers in that study gave participants bubble wrap — then had them watch images of both baby and adult animals. Much more bubble wrap was popped when little animals were on the screen, the study says. The study also found that people were more likely to exhibit “aggressive expressions” when seeing a cute baby image.

But this new research dives deeper and looks at what happens inside a person’s brain when feeling “cute aggression.”

For the study, 54 people wore hats with electrodes so scientists could examine what was happening on a neural level. Then, the study says, participants were shown four different groups of images: “cute (enhanced) babies,” “less cute (non-enhanced) babies,” “cute (baby) animals” and “less cute (adult) animals.”

Thousands of corgis came together, wearing hats, sunglasses, pirate costumes, and more, for Corgi Con on Ocean Beach in San Francisco on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. This is the 10th Corgi Con event since the first that happened in 2014.

Participants were asked to rate how much they agreed with statements like “I want to protect it” after viewing each group. The group of cute baby animals images brought out a disproportionate amount of “cute aggression” when compared to adult animals, the study’s authors noted, while this did not happen for either group of baby images.

Then, using the electrodes in their subjects’ hats, the researchers found how “cute aggression” plays out in the human brain.

“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 in the press release. “This is an exciting finding, as it confirms our original hypothesis that the reward system is involved in people’s experiences of cute aggression.”

A gray fox has made The Village of Arroyo Grande his home. Watch as he wanders around town and even makes friends with a local puppy on Wednesday, October 25, 2017.