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Why do you want to squeeze cute things?

Watching a kitten fumbling around, it might feel as if you’ve never encountered anything so devastatingly adorable in your mortal life. You may want to pet its soft fur and kiss its tiny head. But you may also feel the conflicting urge to squeeze or smush the kitten, maybe even stuff it in your mouth. However, you don’t. And you might be appalled by yourself. But this urge, which psychologists call “cute aggression,” is a surprisingly common one estimated to affect about half of all adults.

To better understand this peculiar phenomenon, let’s start with what cuteness is. In 1943, one scientist created a baby schema that identified key features associated with cuteness, like plump cheeks, large eyes, and short limbs. These characteristics, associated with many young animals, were placed in opposition with those perceived as less cute. Decades of study have since indicated that this baby schema reliably tracks with how people perceive cuteness. When study participants see images containing more features that the baby schema pinpoints as cute, they tend to look at them longer and more often. And the photos appear to stimulate brain regions associated with emotion and reward. Cuteness is also thought to influence behavior.

In a 2009 study, participants performed better at the game Operation—which demands precise, careful movements— when shown cute images beforehand. The results of another study indicated that people use recycling bins more when they have cute images on them. And the fact that cuteness hijacks our emotions is certainly not lost on authorities and advertisers.

But why does cuteness have this hold on us?

It’s nearly impossible to know for sure, but one theory is that cute things simply make us want to nurture them. Because human babies are relatively helpless on their own, it’s hypothesized that evolution favored infants who were perceived as cute and inspired more care and interaction. And, being acutely sensitive to cuteness, we’re tuned into similar features in other species. In fact, as we domesticated animals, their appearances tended to change too.

Some scientists have noted a phenomenon called “domestication syndrome,” where certain animals appear to have gradually adopted more juvenile features as they became more docile. One theory is that these physical changes are regulated by an embryonic structure called the neural crest. It helps determine how some of a developing embryo’s cells differentiate and where they go. Delaying or inhibiting the arrival of these cells in certain areas of the body can result in an underdevelopment of the pituitary and adrenal glands, which govern fear and aggression. It can also lead to physical characteristics like floppier ears, shorter snouts, and smaller jaws.

This is one idea of how selecting for behavioral characteristics like friendliness. May also select for more juvenile, cuter physical traits. Basically, as humans bred and domesticated docile dogs, we seem to have made some breeds look more like babies. Some scientists theorize that we may have even domesticated ourselves. The thinking here is that as ancient humans formed larger, more cooperative groups, they selected for friendlier individuals. This may have then led to some of the physical characteristics that distinguish us from our closest evolutionary cousins. Like smaller, rounder skulls and subtler brow ridges.

Why would anyone ever want to squeeze or bite cute things?

But if cuteness is related to nurturing and decreased aggression. Why would anyone ever want to squeeze or bite cute things? Well, cute aggression is importantly not linked to the actual intention to do harm. Instead, it seems to result from emotional overload. Some scientists think that cute things elicit such positive emotions from certain people that the experience becomes overwhelming. They hypothesize that slightly aggressive, discordant thoughts are the brain’s way of putting the brakes on. And regulating those intense feelings—not getting you to actually eat a kitten. Cuteness can come off as a frivolous, innocent quality, but it wields immense, consequential power. Not to be aggressive, but cuteness kind of runs the world.

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