“You’re So Cute I Just Wanna Eat You Up”

it's a 4-panel of a cute cartoon volcano. In the first panel, volcano is slightly smiling. Panel 2: they are smiling with their mouth in an upside down W and their eyes closed. In the third panel, they seem to be slightly alarmed as smoke flows out of them. In the fourth, they are blowing up with lava.
Image by Licenciada Cantinas / CC BY

Sometimes people say really weird things when they hold babies.

For starters, there’s nonsensical baby talk. Goo goos and gaa gaas. All that.

And then there are the observations grown adults will sometimes make that sound, well, frankly a little more hostile or angry than they do happy: “You’re so cute I want to eat you up.” Pinching a baby’s cheeks. Although not doing so in a way that would actually harm them. Not usually anyway.

It’s a pretty common occurrence. Mild displays of aggression in response to something incredibly cute. People talking about eating babies. It’s kind of weird.

It reminds me of Hugo the Abominable Snowman in the old Looney Tunes cartoons:

Just what I always wanted. My own little bunny rabbit. I will name him George and I will hug him and pet him and squeeze him… and pat him and pat him… and love him and caress him…

This attention certainly reads to his captive (Daffy Duck, actually — not Bugs Bunny, despite Hugo’s flawed assertion that he is holding a bunny rabbit) as aggression. And while normally such light aggression is harmless, given Hugo’s diminished presence of mind and large size, it’s entirely likely that Hugo’s displays of affection will be hazardous to Daffy’s health.

Cute Aggression or Playful Aggression

Researchers noticed this phenomenon and conducted a study that explored it and its possible underlying causes. These “displays of both care and aggression in response to cute stimuli” later became known as “cute aggression” or “playful aggression.”

They found that the most likely cause for cute aggression is that it functions as an emotional self-management technique. Essentially, when we see something extremely cute, it has the potential to flood our bodies with positive emotions in a way that’s completely overwhelming. In response to this, we begin to act slightly aggressively to balance out this overwhelming positive response with a negative one.

While the reasons for this aren’t exactly clear in the empirical literature, some have ventured that this might have an evolutionary origin. If we are too overwhelmed by positive emotions from admiring how cute our young are, we will act as poor caretakers for them. So it’s important for us to rein that in somehow. Find a way to rebalance.

In any event, cute aggression is interesting. And I find myself thinking of it whenever anyone calls me, or anyone else, a snack.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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1 Comment

  1. It is like in maurice sendak’s “where the wild things are.” Max is told by the monsters they will eat him up they love him so. It is a strange phenomenon. One of my favorite articles about the phenomenon of ‘cute’ is by Johnathan Levy, a theater for young people scholar. I wish I could remember the name of the article for you… Levy discusses the role and function of ‘cute’ in in life and on stage. I love this idea of playful aggression, I appreciate knowing those impulses have a raison d’etre.

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