Cute aggression, or playful aggression, is a superficially aggressive behaviour caused by seeing something cute, such as a human baby or young animal. People experiencing cute aggression may grit their teeth, clench their fists, or feel the urge to pinch and squeeze something they consider cute, while not actually causing or intending to cause any harm.
The first research into cute aggression was led by Oriana Aragón.[A] The term "cute aggression" was published widely in 2013, after Rebecca Dyer and Aragón presented their team's early research on the topic at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology on January 18. In 2015, Aragón and colleagues published their first academic paper on the subject, using the alternative term "playful aggression", defined as follows:
Playful aggression is in reference to the expressions that people show sometimes when interacting with babies. Sometimes we say things and appear to be more angry than happy, even though we are happy. For example some people grit their teeth, clench their hands, pinch cheeks, or say things like “I want to eat you up!” It would be difficult to ask about every possible behavior of playful aggression, so we ask generally about things of this kind—calling them playful aggressions.
The concept of playful aggression is also captured in several non-English terms. In Filipino, for example, the word gigil refers to "the gritting of teeth and the urge to pinch or squeeze something that is unbearably cute." In Indonesian, the word 'gemas' refers to the built-up feeling you feel when seeing cute objects, which then leads up to the gritting teeth or the urge to pinch.
Playful aggression is a type of "dimorphous" display, in which a positive experience elicits expressions usually associated with negative emotions. This behaviour occurs more commonly in individuals who experience dimorphous emotions across a range of situations, and may help to regulate emotions by balancing an overwhelmingly positive emotion with a negative response.
- Dopamine - released when engaging with an object that you perceive as cute, also released during aggression (neuronal reward system)
- Oxytocin - neuronal hormone and neurotransmitter that controls empathy and forms bonds with others
- Serotonin - regulates mood, social behaviors, and digestion
- Endorphins - involved in pain tolerance, associated with fight or flight stress response
- Corticotropin Releasing Hormone (CRH) - stimulates the production of ACTH
- Adrenocorticotropin Hormone (ACTH) - production of cortisol
- Cortisol - controls blood sugar levels, regulates metabolism
- Adrenaline - neurotransmitter involved in stress response, controls heart rate and sweat secretion amounts
- Noradrenaline - comparable function to adrenaline, stress response hormone
When presented with a “cute” stimulus, our natural response is often positive which is linked to activity within the hippocampus located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain. Dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin are all released during a pleasurable situation and are thus involved in neurological reward pathways. CTH, ACTH, Cortisol, Adrenaline, and Noradrenaline are all involved in the aggressive side of the response. When exposed to a stimulus, the emotions you experience activate the amygdala in the brain, eventually activating the hypothalamus which will, in turn, release CTH which travels via the infundibulum in order to bind to receptors allowing for the release of ACTH into the bloodstream which will bind to receptors in the adrenal glands which will release cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline as a stress response. This reward pathway pairs with the stress response because the body strives to achieve homeostatic levels of emotion in addition to other physiological balances. In order to prevent becoming overly consumed by an emotion, our body will release hormones that impose the opposite effect in order to allow us to keep our emotions under control so that we don’t get hung up on every adorable baby or playful puppy we encounter throughout our lives.
Intense positive feelings often produce hybrid categorically positive and typical negative expressions. This is commonly witnessed in situations in which a person is so overwhelmed by happiness that they begin to tear up or even cry. Such regulation of emotion has been coined “dimorphous expression.” The dimorphous expression model seeks to identify the validity of the phenomenon via a study involving a series of questions asked to subjects in conditions where they were not exposed to a cute stimulus and in conditions where they were exposed.
Human beings possess the natural tendency of care-taking. As a species, humans rely heavily upon parental care in order for their offspring to survive. Humans have very low reproductive rates relative to other species which amplifies the importance of parental care toward the survival of their very few offspring. These feelings tend to be on a continuous scale rather than a particular threshold value. The gradient is most intense with objects that we perceive to be more cute in comparison to objects that are not as cute, but still generate a response.
- See author contribution statements in Aragón et al. (2015).
- Anna Brooks and Ricky van der Zwan (2013) "Explainer: what is cute aggression?" The Conversation, 10 September 2013. Accessed 2 September 2013.
- Oriana R. Aragón, Margaret S. Clark, Rebecca L. Dyer and John A. Bargh (2015) "Dimorphous Expressions of Positive Emotion: Displays of Both Care and Aggression in Response to Cute Stimuli", Psychological Science, 26(3): 259-273 (27 January 2015). doi: 10.1177/0956797614561044
- "When Too Cute is Too Much, the Brain Can Get Aggressive".
- Stephanie Pappas (2013) "'I Wanna Eat You Up!' Why We Go Crazy for Cute" LiveScience, 21 January 2013. Accessed 2 September 2013.
- Amy Smith (2017) "Cute anger management" Lateral magazine, 9 August 2017. Accessed 2 September 2017.
- Borden, Marissa. "The Chemistry of Cute Aggression". ChemistryIsLife.
- Stavropoulos, Katherine (4 December 2018). ""It's so Cute I Could Crush It!": Understanding Neural Mechanisms of Cute Aggression". Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience. 12: 300. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00300. PMC 6288201. PMID 30564109.