What is Cute Aggression?

practical psychology logo
Published by:
Practical Psychology
Andrew English
Reviewed by:
Andrew English, Ph.D.

Have you ever seen something so cute you want to… bite it? Or heard someone say they want to eat their infant’s toes? This juxtaposition of thinking something is adorable and wanting to act aggressively toward it is surprisingly common! Cute aggression is a fascinating phenomenon in psychology, and it helps to explain why we may do a lot of bizarre things in reaction to overwhelming emotions. 

Let’s dive into what “cute aggression” means and why we can’t always rely on our minds to react “appropriately” to how we feel.

What Is Cute Aggression? 

Cute aggression is a natural urge to squeeze, bite, or act aggressively toward something cute. While there are a few studies on cute aggression, psychologists have theories about how cute aggression works. Don’t worry; cute aggression is not a sign of mental illness or any condition. It’s normal!

Other ways you might experience cute aggression is by gritting your teeth or clenching your fists together when you see something cute. You might not even know you’re doing it! 

Even though it’s weird to hear your aunt say that they want to bite their baby’s toes, cute aggression is completely normal. It’s probably more normal than you would think! Over half of adults have experienced cute aggression.  

Studies on cute aggression have suggested that cute aggression is simply a way to deal with our overwhelming emotions. A brief thought of aggression can calm us down after encountering something (or someone) adorable. So if you're asking, "is cute aggression normal?" you can rest well that it's a natural tendency.

cute hedgehog

Why Do We Get So Overwhelmed By Cuteness? 

Seeing a cute baby or a tiny kitten can be overwhelming. Why? We can blame evolution! In the 1940s, a German psychologist named Konrad Lorenz studied how humans react to kittens, puppies, and other small animals and humans. He discovered that a baby’s physical features - big, round eyes, small noses, etc. - ignited a desire to nurture and care for what we were looking at. This phenomenon is called "Kindchenschema,” or baby schema

This desire has kept the human race alive for generations upon generations. We want to protect the most vulnerable. By protecting and nurturing babies, we continue the human race. It’s evolution! 

Here are a few examples of cute aggression:

  1. Feeling the urge to pinch or squeeze a baby's cheeks because they are so adorable.
  2. Wanting to hug a small animal, like a kitten or a puppy, tightly and perhaps even squish them because they're too cute.
  3. Biting a piece of candy or food shaped like a cute animal, like a gummy bear, is a way to express the overwhelming cuteness of the object.
  4. Feeling the need to scream or shout when seeing something adorable, like a baby panda, to release the intense emotions evoked by the cuteness.
  5. Playfully hitting a friend or partner who is being overly cute or sweet as a way to express affection or attraction.

It's important to note that while cute aggression may be a common phenomenon, it's always important to treat animals and other living beings with care and respect and never to harm or mistreat them, even if they are incredibly cute.

This desire, however, can be so overwhelming that we don’t know how to handle our emotions when they hit us. As a response, we may experience cute aggression. 

Margaret Keane's Big-Eyed Waifs: The Allure of Cute Aggression

The peculiar yet captivating work of American artist Margaret Keane provides a vivid example of how cute aggression might manifest in response to visual art. Keane’s signature big-eyed waifs, with their disproportionately large and expressive eyes, epitomize the “Kindchenschema” that Konrad Lorenz described. It’s not hard to imagine someone looking at one of these paintings and feeling an overwhelming urge to reach out and touch or squeeze the depicted character, even if they’re just brushstrokes on canvas. This cute aggression extends from living creatures to inanimate representations, showcasing our innate responses to perceived cuteness.

Mark Ryden's Pop Surrealism: The Complexities of Cute and Creepy

Mark Ryden takes this phenomenon further by intertwining cuteness with a sense of the eerie or macabre, a style known as pop surrealism. His work often includes childlike figures and animals in an unsettling context, pushing the boundaries of what we traditionally consider cute. This mix can heighten the sense of cute aggression as viewers are pulled in by the characters' innocence but simultaneously unsettled by the oddity of their surroundings, leading to a more complex emotional response.

LOL and OMG Toys: Cute Overload in Consumerism

In the realm of toys and consumer goods, products like LOL Surprise! dolls and OMG fashion dolls are designed to tap directly into the cute aesthetic that triggers emotional responses. These toys, with their oversized eyes and heads, fashionable accessories, and playful designs, often come in surprise packaging that adds an element of anticipation to the cuteness, potentially amplifying the cute aggression response when the item is finally revealed.

Similarly, the phenomenon can be observed in the popularity of squishy toys, which are often shaped like cute animals or food items with cute faces. The very act of squeezing these toys, which can be surprisingly satisfying, is a harmless physical manifestation of cute aggression.

Managing the Overload: From Art to Interaction

Whether it's through the interaction with toys or the appreciation of art, what these examples highlight is a universal aspect of human psychology. We are wired to respond to cuteness, and that response can sometimes take on a physical form that seems at odds with the emotion itself. However, it’s crucial to recognize the boundary between feeling an urge and acting upon it, especially concerning living beings.

Understanding cute aggression through examples like Margaret Keane's and Mark Ryden's art or the consumer frenzy surrounding LOL and OMG toys reinforces the notion that this psychological response is deeply embedded in our culture. It transcends age and geography and even extends into our consumer habits. By recognizing cute aggression in these various forms, we become more aware of our emotional landscape and the sometimes unexpected ways we express our feelings.

Is Cute Aggression Bad? 

Cute aggression isn’t bad…unless you act on it! Of course, biting or squeezing a defenseless animal or baby is not okay. Don’t hurt cute things! But don’t beat yourself up over experiencing cute aggression, either. Our brains do totally weird things sometimes!

Although we typically associate cute aggression with adults who simultaneously feel the need to nurture and nibble on their children, younger children may also experience cute aggression. But there is a difference between cute aggression and being unable to control your actions. 

Take a look at this Reddit post. A mother has a conversation with a teacher about her son. The teacher claims that the son’s tendency to put his hands on other children’s necks is straight-up aggressive behavior. The mother claims it is cute aggression. So what is it?

If the child knows that acting on their “urge” is wrong but does it anyway, it is more than cute aggression. Read this post to see how other parents and teachers deal with similar behavior. In the comments, you’ll find some hilarious displays of cute aggression:

  • “I imagine it's like Agnes in Despicable Me when she gets the stuffed unicorn at the fair and says IT'S SO FLUFFY! But not when trying to strangle your peers…”
  • “i genuinely found my baby so cute i wanted to punch her in the face. it was the weirdest sensation (obvs i did not punch my baby in the face).”
  • “I call my corgi’s back legs ‘tasty little drumsticks’”
  • “ I always tell my kids I want to eat them because they are so cute, so strange to say this out loud” 

How to Stop Cute Aggression

No therapy or treatment can eliminate cute aggression. And there’s no need to! As long as you do not act on these strange urges to bite or squeeze, you’re okay. Lean into it! Think about picking up those cute kittens or nibbling on your baby’s toes. The feeling will go away much quicker. 

Studies on Cute Aggression

The most notable study on cute aggression was conducted in 2015 by Yale researchers. In this study, participants answered questions about cute aggression and their emotions. Researchers provided pictures of babies and animals that were enhanced to make them even more “cute.” The participants answered questions about their emotions again and once again after they were given a task. 

Here’s what the researchers found: 

  • The cute photos elicited a more emotional response than the photos of adults and adult animals
  • People who experienced “cute aggression” also experienced an overwhelming amount of emotion upon seeing the photos
  • People who experienced “cute aggression” moved through their emotions faster than those who didn’t 

This led the researchers to suggest that cute aggression was how the mind learned to cope with overwhelming feelings. 

One notable connection made by the Yale researchers was between cute aggression and other types of “odd” displays of emotion: 

“We found support for the idea that individuals’ selfreports of dimorphous expressions correlate across situations and across the precise emotion expressed (e.g., happiness and excitement). Furthermore, responses to cute stimuli appear to be of the same kind as other dimorphous expressions of positive emotions, such as crying when reuniting with a loved one.”

Cute aggression is not a phenomenon that stands alone in psychology. It is one example of dimorphous expression. Dimorphous expression was first defined in that Yale study and has since been studied by other researchers. 

Dimorphous Expression

Cute aggression is a form of dimorphous expression. Dimorphous expressions refer to the co-occurrence of two opposite emotional expressions, such as smiling while feeling sad or crying while feeling happy. These expressions can confuse others, who may not understand why the individual is expressing contradictory emotions. Dimorphous expressions can be conscious or unconscious and can be caused by various factors, including cultural and social influences, individual personality traits, and emotional regulation strategies.

One explanation for dimorphous expressions is that they allow individuals to regulate their emotions. For example, a person may smile while feeling sad as a way to hide their true emotions from others or to boost their mood. Alternatively, crying while feeling happy may be a way to release intense positive emotions that cannot be expressed through a smile or laughter alone.

However, dimorphous expressions can also be a sign of deeper emotional conflicts or psychological disorders. For example, individuals with depression or anxiety may experience difficulty expressing positive emotions or may feel guilty for feeling happy. In these cases, dimorphous expressions may be a symptom of underlying emotional issues that require professional treatment.

Overall, dimorphous expressions are a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that can have a variety of meanings and causes. While they may confuse others, it's important to approach them with empathy and understanding, as they may be a way for individuals to cope with complex emotional experiences.

Dimorphous Expression Examples 

You have probably heard phrases like “It’s so cute, I just want to bite its toes” more times than you remember. Similarly, other types of dimorphous expressions are normal…until you start to think about how we often behave contrary to our emotions. 

All of the following are examples of dimorphous expression: 

  • Crying at a happy event (“tears of joy”) 
  • Screaming or howling at a musician that you like
  • Cute aggression
  • Bearing your teeth like an animal after you have won a race
  • Laughing when someone makes you angry 
  • Smiling or laughing upon hearing tragic news 

Some of these expressions have become more “normalized” than others. It’s encouraged, for example, to scream and yell at a rock concert. It’s not exactly encouraged to smile or giggle upon hearing bad news. But all of these expressions are normal. If you see someone smiling or even laughing at a funeral, they may be displaying dimorphous expressions. This is okay, as they are probably just uncomfortable and working through their emotions.

Embrace Cute Aggression!

It’s normal if you want to eat your baby’s toes or squeeze a bunny rabbit - don’t do it! Know that your feelings come from the desire to nurture the small creatures in your life.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2022, October). What is Cute Aggression?. Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/what-is-cute-aggression/.

About The Author

Photo of author