Psychology last year recognised "cute aggression" as a thing; that strange, purely hypothetical, compulsion to nibble a baby, or, as a colleague said to me the other day, "dropkick that puppy he's so cute".
The same team of researchers who established the term have now expanded on it in a new paper in Psychological Science, explaining why humans feel such paradoxical, violent urges towards things they enjoy.
They posit that the feeling is similar to nervous laughter or tears of joy, an attempt to regulate emotion by going in the opposite direction and thus bringing ourselves back down to a normal state.
"So, people who show dimorphous expressions in response to cute stimuli, like babies, tend to show them in response to other positive situations and emotions, such as crying during happy moments in movies," the co-authors wrote.
"This suggests that dimorphous expressions may serve as a general mechanism of expression that helps to regulate positive emotion.
They added of the study which their findings were based upon: "As part of the study, the researchers asked participants to look at and evaluate photos of different babies, some of whom appeared more infantile (i.e., rounder faces, bigger eyes) than others.
"Participants showed higher expressions of care for the more infantile babies, saying that they wanted to take care of them and protect them. But they also reported higher expressions of aggression in response to these babies, saying that they wanted to pinch the babies’ cheeks and “eat them up."
What's more, it seems the tactic works, with respondents who showed higher expressions of aggression while looking at the babies tending to show a bigger drop-off in positive emotion five minutes after viewing the images.
Phrases like "I could just eat you up" do seem to help us stop being overcome by what might be called squeeeeeee, the same way laughing during sad film scenes might help us hold back the tears.