Did you ever wonder why all those women were squeezing rolls of toilet paper in those absurd Charmin' ads from years ago? It wasn't the TP, no matter what Mr. Whipple said when he told them to stop. It must have been the baby on the wrapper.
The term for that impulse is cute aggression, and it's a real thing.
Proctor & Gamble made a fortune on the phenomenon of cute aggression before it was even known to science. If you're over 30, you probably remember the ads where crazy housewives were pulling packages of Charmin' toilet paper off the shelf to squeeze them. Out comes grocery manager “Mr. Whipple” to make them stop. Of course, after he sends them all away, he squeezes the Charmin' in secret.
The ads ran from 1965 to 1989, 504 of them. Proctor & Gamble brought Mr. Whipple out of retirement briefly in 1999 after the company took the cute baby picture off the label and switched to the cute Charmin' bears. The ad campaign made Dick Wilson, the actor who played Mr. Whipple, one of the most recognized characters of all time. Silly, yes. But it worked because it touched a deep human urge.
In 2012, Yale scientists, Rebecca Dyer and Oriana Aragon, investigated the urge to squeeze, bite, or show aggression toward adorably cute baby animals and human babies (but not toilet paper). They originated the term “cute aggression”.
You've seen it or done it. People pinch baby cheeks, which doesn't seem like a very loving gesture when you think about it. We pretend to growl at puppies, another not so friendly gesture.
You've surely heard someone say tell a baby, “I just want to bite your little toes off; I could eat you right up!” Or coo toward a puppy, “Oooh, I could squeeze you to death.” And they may be telling the literal truth if they say, “Oooh, I can't stand it!”
In 2015, neuroscientist Anna Brooks told a reporter that cute aggression is probably a natural mechanism to dial down feeling too good around cuteness.
People who are helplessly flooded with excessive levels of the feel-good hormone dopamine aren't functioning at their logical best. They could spend so much emotional energy feeling the love that they forget to do their chores, like change diapers and feed the baby.
Just recently, new research upheld that theory and added some details to the mystery of why some of us want to kill, maim, bite and squeeze cute things. As part of the testing, they asked participants to rate their response to cute and non-cute animals and babies then evaluate their reactions. They were asked about the statements “I can't stand it,” “I can't handle it” along with reactions of wanting to hold it and protect it.
This is what is most interesting: The higher the “I can't stand it” rating participants gave each picture, the more the reward centers in their brains lit up, and the more cute aggression they reported.
That strongly suggests that the early theory that cute aggression is a reaction to being emotionally overwhelmed.
It should be noted if you are shaking your head that all of us don't experience a high degree of cute aggression. I, for one, have never felt the urge to pinch baby cheeks or bite toes. OK, belly bubbles, yes, who could resist that? But my daughters give me pretty high marks for mothering, despite declining to eat them all up as infants.
And some people in the recent research group said they only felt the cute aggression urge toward animals and not toward babies. But I must admit, I've never squeezed a puppy, either, and I love dogs of all sizes and kinds. I do, however, force Squeaky, the tiny cat, to endure kitty kisses on her head. Sorry Squeaks, Mother Nature made me do it.
At any rate, the next time you hear someone threatening to squeeze a baby to death, it's probably all fine. Very much fine.
Katherine K.M. Stavropoulos and Laura A. Albo. “It’s so Cute I Could Crush It!”: Understanding Neural Mechanisms of Cute Aggression. Front. Behav. Neurosci., 04 December 2018. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00300
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