Science just told us why we want to squeeze cute things

Have you ever seen something adorable, like a puppy or a bunny, and just wanted to hug it to pieces? I’m betting you have. When you think about it, that urge is kind of odd. Maybe even a little dangerous. (Say, for instance, what happens in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, give it a read. But only if you need a good and thorough cry.)

It turns out the “I want to hug you and squeeze you to death” urge you might feel when you see something cute is totally normal. A study done at Yale University recently explored this phenomenon, and the findings were published in Psychological Science. The experiment studied what happened when people were presented with “cute stimuli.” (Even that sounds cute. I want to hug a kitten now, but honestly, that’s something I want to do about 99% of the time.)

The study found that people who have extremely positive reactions to pics of adorable babies also “displayed stronger aggressive expressions.” I know that sounds kind of weird, but what they’re saying is that people who were really into the babies wanted to pinch their cheeks or maybe knead their chubby little thighs. Totally normal. What’s a little cray is that the study also discovered people enjoyed popping bubble wrap when they saw baby animal pictures.


Yep, participants with bubble wrap were presented with photos of adult animals and baby animals. Apparently, the bubble wrap didn’t survive the onslaught of adorableness that is a teeny tiny baby animal. Go figure.

Okay, so the hugging, squeezing, pinching thing is a normal response (keep in mind, we’re talking about an innocent little squeeze, not an urge to actually do any harm). But why does it happen? Oriana Aragon, Ph.D., one of the scientists involved in the study, says it’s common for some people who experience a strong emotion to immediately express their feelings in a way that seems at odds with what they’re feeling. Like crying when you’re happy (guilty!). Or laughing when you’re nervous. The same thing is going on when you want to squeeze that baby kitten. And guess what? It serves an actual biological function. According to the study, it helps reestablish your emotional equilibrium. In other words, it keeps your emotions balanced. So at some point you can actually stop saying awwww and turn off those Internet kitten videos.

Also, if you’re taking care of a baby animal IRL instead of just looking at a photo, your squeezing instinct actually helps you be a better pet parent. Aragon says, “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.”

Whew. Now maybe I can stop worrying about why I clench my teeth sometimes when I talk to my dogs. It’s only because they’re adorbs. Just keep me away from your bubble wrap.

(Image via Shutterstock.)