The feeling that you really need to bite that chubby baby’s arm? You’re not misreading it. PREMIUM (Shutterstock)
Studies have found that the urge to bite someone we find “cute” comes from the brain’s need to channel a sensory overload.
The rush of feeling caused by the cute baby (or puppy or bird) is so intense that it registers as a kind of stress. The body and brain begin to look for a release for that stress; and an effective method of somatic release is biting down. (Another example of somatic release: fidgeting when nervous.)
The phenomenon that causes the bite impulse is called cute aggression or playful aggression; essentially, an urge to squeeze, bite, or pinch something cute, often a baby or the young of another species, without any desire to cause them harm.
People are often confused by this feeling, and describe it as “I don’t want to hurt it. I just want to eat it,” Katherine Stavropoulos, a psychologist with the University of California, Riverside, told NPR, soon after she co-authored a paper titled “It’s so Cute I Could Crush It!”: Understanding Neural Mechanisms of Cute Aggression. The paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience in December 2018, examined what cute aggression looks like in the brain.
Watch how your hands and face react the next time you use this phrase or feel this surge of emotion. Chances are there will be alternative methods of somatic release at play: typically, gritting the teeth or clenching the fists.
Now, there are two interesting aspects to why we feel cute aggression.
The rush of emotion is tied to an evolutionary response that promotes caring for our species’ young.
Studies have shown that what humans find cute corresponds very closely to what is called baby schema (or the prominent features of an infant’s face): large eyes, small nose, protruding cheeks.
Studies, going back to the 1940s, through the 1970s and more recently in 2002, have also laid out the key role that cuteness plays in eliciting caretaking behaviours in adults, even among non-parents. The 2002 study was by researchers from Queen’s University, Canada, studying adoption preferences. It was published in the journal Human Nature.
This is why the rush of cute aggression is often followed by a desire to tend to the child or animal. Today, this is often expressed as a desire to pick up or hold the child, even when it doesn’t need care, Stavropoulos points out in her paper.
The other interesting aspect to why we feel cute aggression is a bit more complex, and rather fascinating.
Ask yourself: Why aggression? The answer is linked to the fact that the gestures and facial cues available for “cute” aren’t enough to adequately express the rush of emotion felt by the person, psychologist Oriana Aragón of Clemson University in South Carolina explained to BBC, in the wake of a 2015 study published in the journal Psychological Science.
The fact that a different emotion is then coupled with the first one, indicates just how important the brain considers it, for us to accurately express our feelings.
Why would expressing emotion be so crucial? We’ll get to that. First, a bit about dimorphous expression.
Cute aggression is one example of a person experiencing a strong emotion of one kind and expressing cues linked to a very different feeling, which is referred to as dimorphous expression. A more well-known example of this is tears of joy. Here, the brain tries a smile and a laugh; it isn’t enough. There is a lot more information to be conveyed. So it reaches out for stronger emotional cues; in this case, tears. Yet another example is “cute sadness”, the awww feeling born of affection and tenderness caused by something small.
Dimorphous expression is why joy at winning can seem like aggression; why some people laugh when they’re nervous. And it goes back to a time before we had words.
For millions of years, as we struggled to survive in groups and clans, all we had was what we could convey in expressions and syllable-less sound. Our ability to convey what we felt determined how well we could collaborate, Aragón explains. How well we could hunt, tend to the sick, and ask for help
The brain, our rapidly growing ally in this fight to survive, learnt that a smile or a shout wasn’t always going to do the job. It began to club emotions, send them out in clusters when necessary; anything to ensure that the humans around could see that this was fear or joy or pain of a different degree.
Isn’t it interesting, how traces of these ancient tools remain, hiding in plain sight, when we choke back tears over a thoughtful gift; pump the air on the tennis court; or look at a little baby and just want to bite their arm?