'You're So Cute, I Could Just Eat You Up.' Say What?

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Originally posted on November 20, 2014.

Have you ever seen a baby so cute you wanted to snuggle it and take a bite out of it at the same time? Ever said to a new niece or nephew, “You’re so cute, I could just eat you up?”

Have you cried after a happy occasion, such as crossing the finish line of a race for which you’ve long prepared, or proposing to your girlfriend and getting a yes? Two weeks ago, I experienced these conflicting emotions when I shed several tears after finishing a 100 mile running race.

These conflicting concurrent emotions help us maintain emotional balance, according to research from Yale University.

An adult’s reaction to an adorable baby is to kiss them and coo at them. But an adult may also pinch, squeeze, and playfully nip at them. Knowing that most people don’t intend to actually harm babies, the researchers designed several experiments to find out why adults respond to them with aggressive behavior.

In one study, participants looked at and evaluated photos of different babies, some of whom appeared more infantile than others. The participants said they wanted to care for and protect the infantile babies, but they also reported higher expressions of aggression in response to the babies. Participants were also more likely to feel overwhelmed with very strong positive feelings in response to the more infantile babies.

What do these findings tell us? Being overwhelmed by positive emotion produce responses designed to bring us down to our emotional baseline. Ever in need of emotional equilibrium, people will engage in behaviors aimed at leveling off their extreme emotional reactions.

So the next time you cry during a happy scene in a movie, laugh nervously, or feel compelled to take a bite out of a cute baby, remember that it is just your body’s way of maintaining emotional balance.

About the Author
C. Nathan DeWall is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Social Psychology Lab at the University of Kentucky. He received his Bachelor’s Degree from St. Olaf College, a Master’s Degree in Social Science from the University of Chicago, and a Master’s degree and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Florida State University. DeWall received the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teaching Award, which recognizes excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching. In 2011, the Association for Psychological Science identified DeWall as a “Rising Star” for “making significant contributions to the field of psychological science.”