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The aggressive urges you might have when you see adorable things are probably related to the way you handle strong emotions.
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When you look at pictures of cute babies or adorable little puppies, it can be hard to resist the urge to just, “d'aww!” They're just so darn cute! All the little noses, and big eyes, and don't you just want to pinch those adorable cheeks and eat them up?

That's a pretty common reaction, but it's also really weird, when you think about it. It's not like you'd want to hurt a baby or a puppy, but for some reason you just … want to squeeze it. Well, turns out, that weird urge probably has to do with the way we handle strong emotions.

When you see something with big, wide-set eyes, a little nose and chin, and a round face — in other words, like a baby face — your nurturing instincts get triggered, whether you're looking at a tiny human or another adorable animal. In the 1940s, Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian animal behavior researcher, called this collection of facial characteristics Kindchenschema, or “baby schema”. But it applies to more than just babies — we tend to find anything with these characteristics extra cute.

Researchers have found that if you manipulate these traits, like by making the eyes bigger or smaller, that affects how strongly people react and how adorable they find something. They've also found that baby faces activate a bunch of different brain areas and circuits, including areas that have to do with feeling rewarded. So at a deep level, we're motivated to care for things with baby-like faces.

Cute things might even help you focus. A pair of small experiments from Japan in 2012 found that looking at pictures of cute baby animals, as opposed to adult animals or food, boosted people's performance on tasks like finding specific numbers in a large display. So there's some excuses for watching a bunch of cat videos when you're supposed to be studying.

It makes sense that cuteness would be associated with reward and focus, because it's an evolutionary advantage to want to protect and nurture babies. But the intense reaction to cuteness can also lead to something else: that urge to use what's called “cute aggression” — when you want to pinch chubby cheeks and squeeze adorable things, even though you don't actually want to hurt them. Showing positive and negative emotional expressions at the same time isn't that uncommon.

It's pretty normal to cry from happiness or laugh when you're angry. They're called dimorphous expressions, and some people experience them more than others. Cute aggression is a dimorphous expression that involves mixing nurturing with playful squeezing, pinching, and maybe even biting.

And in a paper published in 2015 in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Yale decided to explore what it is about cuteness that leads to that particular mix. They first asked 679 people to describe what their usual emotional reactions were like — say, if it was hard for them to hide their excitement, or if they cried during the happiest parts of movies. Then, participants rated how positive and negative they currently felt to establish a baseline mood level for each person.

Next, they looked at photos of babies that were either unedited, or had been enhanced to look more or less baby-like by changing the size of their eyes, nose, and chin. They rated each photo based on how nurturing they felt while they were looking at it, if they felt emotionally overwhelmed, and whether they experienced any cute aggressive urges, like wanting to pinch the baby's cheeks. After looking at the pictures, participants rated their mood again to measure how much it changed.

Then they did a word search for 5 minutes just to pass some time before rating their mood once more. The researchers found that the more baby-like photos were rated more positively, just like in other studies on baby schema. But they also found that the cuter babies were more likely to make people feel emotionally overwhelmed and to report cute aggressive urges, like wanting to squeeze the baby.

The thing is, it was usually only if people felt overwhelmed that they also felt cute aggression. Cute aggression was also related to how often people reported dimorphous emotional expressions in general. For example, if someone said that they tended to cry from happiness, they were more likely to report feeling like they wanted to squeeze or pinch the babies, or that they wanted to eat them all up.

They also found something surprising: at the end of the study, people who reported feeling cute aggressive urges were closer to their initial mood. In other words, the cute aggression seemed to help them cope with the overwhelming positive emotions and get back to normal. Now, we'll need more studies before we know exactly what's up with cute aggression, but the researchers think that these mixed expressions might be one way people manage strong emotions — in this case, positive emotions.

It's harder to be a good caregiver if you're overwhelmed by the cuteness in front of you, so gently pinching a baby's cheeks, or at least feeling the urge to, might actually be helpful. It gives you somewhere to channel the emotion. So the next time you find yourself uncontrollably smiling at a video of cute kittens and you feel like you want to eat them all up, that's probably just your brain trying to keep you from being totally overwhelmed by the adorableness.

So just imagine…(chewing sound)'ll... it'll help you cope, just, not eating it, just put it in your mouth. Or, you could make a website devoted to putting cats in your mouth. Not as a bad, just like as a fun activity if you wanted to do that, or make any other kind of website, yes, this is the segue.

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