Why Do We Feel Compelled to Pinch the Cheeks of Babies?

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Dan Dennett's logic that the features we consider to be cute are indeed perceptively cute, because they elicit our care is substantive. It implies, believably so, that those features of cuteness have evolved in our young because those are the features that have commanded the best care from care providers. Commanding the best care leads to the best care which in turn leads to the best chances of survival. Good enough, that makes sense.

It is harder to reconcile the idea, when thinking about a very different reaction that takes place when people are exposed to little cute beings. In my research, I have spent some time recording how some of us, nearly two-thirds of us humans will pinch, squeeze, and sometimes even bite cute little creatures. For the most part these reactions are playful. They appear to be specific to cuteness. They appear to span the globe. They are both verbal and physical displays and they look on the surface very much like aggression.

Most of us can identify with an enthusiastic Grandma pinching her grandbaby's cheeks, while shrieking, "You are so cute, I could just eat you up!" For the perpetrator it is a feeling of being overwhelmed to the point of feigning to want to do harm to the cute being. In my research, I have called this response: faux-aggression, with an emphasis on the "faux" part because there does not seem to be a conscious intent to do serious harm to these little ones. No word in English entirely captures faux-aggression but other languages around the world do have expressions for it. For example in Vietnamese there is an expression that translates to: "So cute, I just want to bite/pinch you." These responses do not indicate or inspire care. In fact they seem to be more self-centered in that Grandma is not taking her grandson's perspective, because if she did she would quickly realize how uncomfortable her Grandson is while she pinches him. These displays do not indicate care, but they also do not seem to indicate true aggression. The truth is, we are not sure what exactly they do indicate (thus the research).

Now to apply Dennett's logic it would go something like: I don't faux-aggress on that baby because it is cute. The baby is cute because I faux-aggress on it. This does not seem evolutionarily fit for a defenseless baby to invite any type of aggression -- even of the faux type that I describe. Possibly the problem should be considered from the other side. Maybe it has nothing to do with the fitness and survival of the cute baby, but maybe more so with the fitness and survival of others. Maybe a baby that is too cute elicits too much care, taking more than its share of valuable resources from the rest of the potentially, less cute, slightly older offspring in the family? Or maybe signals of cuteness are also signals of vulnerability, and these faux-aggressions that we display today are remnants of a more predatory nature in times past? Who is to say? But I invite your thoughts on the matter.

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