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  • Watching a kitten fumbling around,

  • it might feel as if you've never encountered anything so devastatingly adorable in your mortal life.

  • You may want to pet its soft fur and kiss its tiny head.

  • But you may also feel the conflicting urge to squeeze or smush the kitten, maybe even stuff it in your mouth.

  • However, you don't.

  • And you might be appalled by yourself.

  • But this urge, which psychologists call "cute aggression," is a surprisingly common one estimated to affect about half of all adults.

  • To better understand this peculiar phenomenon, let's start with what cuteness is.

  • In 1943, one scientist created a baby schema that identified key features associated with cuteness, like plump cheeks, large eyes, and short limbs.

  • These characteristics, associated with many young animals, were placed in opposition with those perceived as less cute.

  • Decades of study have since indicated that this baby schema reliably tracks with how people perceive cuteness.

  • When study participants see images containing more features that the baby schema pinpoints as cute, they tend to look at them longer and more often.

  • And the photos appear to stimulate brain regions associated with emotion and reward.

  • Cuteness is also thought to influence behavior.

  • In a 2009 study, participants performed better at the game Operationwhich demands precise, careful movementswhen shown cute images beforehand.

  • The results of another study indicated that people use recycling bins more when they have cute images on them.

  • And the fact that cuteness hijacks our emotions is certainly not lost on authorities and advertisers.

  • But why does cuteness have this hold on us?

  • It's nearly impossible to know for sure, but one theory is that cute things simply make us want to nurture them.

  • Because human babies are relatively helpless on their own,

  • it's hypothesized that evolution favored infants who were perceived as cute and inspired more care and interaction.

  • And, being acutely sensitive to cuteness, we're tuned into similar features in other species.

  • In fact, as we domesticated animals, their appearances tended to change too.

  • Some scientists have noted a phenomenon called "domestication syndrome,"

  • where certain animals appear to have gradually adopted more juvenile features as they became more docile.

  • One theory is that these physical changes are regulated by an embryonic structure called the neural crest.

  • It helps determine how some of a developing embryo's cells differentiate and where they go.

  • Delaying or inhibiting the arrival of these cells in certain areas of the body can result in an underdevelopment of the pituitary and adrenal glands, which govern fear and aggression.

  • It can also lead to physical characteristics like floppier ears, shorter snouts, and smaller jaws.

  • This is one idea of how selecting for behavioral characteristics like friendliness, may also select for more juvenile, cuter physical traits.

  • Basically, as humans bred and domesticated docile dogs, we seem to have made some breeds look more like babies.

  • Some scientists theorize that we may have even domesticated ourselves.

  • The thinking here is that as ancient humans formed larger, more cooperative groups, they selected for friendlier individuals.

  • This may have then led to some of the physical characteristics that distinguish us from our closest evolutionary cousins, like smaller, rounder skulls and subtler brow ridges.

  • But if cuteness is related to nurturing and decreased aggression, why would anyone ever want to squeeze or bite cute things?

  • Well, cute aggression is importantly not linked to the actual intention to do harm.

  • Instead, it seems to result from emotional overload.

  • Some scientists think that cute things elicit such positive emotions from certain people that the experience becomes overwhelming.

  • They hypothesize that slightly aggressive, discordant thoughts are the brain's way of putting the brakes on and regulating those intense feelingsnot getting you to actually eat a kitten.

  • Cuteness can come off as a frivolous, innocent quality, but it wields immense, consequential power.

  • Not to be aggressive, but cuteness kind of runs the world.

Watching a kitten fumbling around,

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