The first step is admitting you have a problem. A very cute problem.
In a 2015 study in Psychological Science, Yale University psychologist Oriana Aragon and team found that people who have extremely positive reactions to images of cute babies also “displayed stronger aggressive expressions,” such as wanting to pinch the babies' cheeks.
Speaking of pinching, another experiment in the recent study found that participants popped more bubble wrap when they saw images of cute baby animals than those who viewed images of older animals.
At the home of cat breeder Lynn Figueroa of Junglespots, bobcat kittens get acclimated to humans and other animals before their sale. This one is six weeks old. [Photograph by Vincent J. Musi, National Geographic Creative]
This shows that, if given the chance to squeeze something while seeing the pictures, they would—though Aragon stresses, not with any real intent to harm the creatures.
The Good, the Bad, and the Cute
So what explains our impulse to squeeze or nibble adorable animals?
For some people, experiencing a strong emotion is followed by “an expression of what one would think is an opposing feeling," says Aragon.
"So you [may] have tears of joy, nervous laughter, or wanting to squeeze something that you think is unbearably cute"—even if it's an animal you'd normally want to cuddle or protect.
That secondary reaction may also serve to “scramble” and temper their initial overwhelming emotion, thus bringing the person into balance.
For instance, the 2015 study showed people who had such positive and negative concurrent reactions regained their emotional equilibrium more quickly.
And if you’re caring for something adorable, that’s important.
“Because they may help people to regain control over their intense emotions, these expressions help the caretaker to [care for an animal or baby] appropriately,” Aragon says.
A puppy attempts to play with a cat in Yukon Territory, Canada. [Photograph by Paul Nicklen, National Geographic Creative]
Looking at cute images also makes us more attentive to detail, according to a 2012 study in the journal PLOS ONE.
That's because cuteness creates a positive feeling associated with a strong “approach motivation,” which is an action triggered by a desire for a good outcome, says study leader Hiroshi Nittono, director of the Cognitive Psychophysiology Laboratory at Japan's Hiroshima University. (You now have Nittono and colleagues to thank for your scientifically justified “cute animals breaks” at work.)
It’s a "go-get-it" attitude,” Nittono says, and such feelings can switch easily between positive and negative.
Nittono also doesn’t think that the negative impulses toward cuteness is really aggression, because the person doesn’t want to hurt the animal or baby.
Instead, the secondary feeling is more like disgust, or “keeping a distance from the object,” Nittono says.
“This kind of behavior can be seen in children,” he says. “Boys who love a certain girl pretend to have no interest in her at all and try to ignore her.”
Now that image is so cute I can’t stand it. Where’s that bubble wrap?