Cute overload? Why you want to punch Miley’s pig, and other lessons for artists

Yoshitomo Nara's "Your Dog" at the MIA. Cute but too big to be cuddly.

Yoshitomo Nara’s “Your Dog” at the MIA. Cute but too big to be cuddly.

Miley Cyrus is purposefully provocative. But you generally don’t want to punch her. Her new pet pig, on the other hand, may make you want to tear through a wall.

That’s not your fault or the pig’s. That’s aesthetics and the human mind’s reaction to it. Miley may be cute. But the pig is unbelievably cute, triggering something called cute overload or, more properly, cute aggression. Recent research suggests it’s real and really paradoxical: when something’s cute—like a baby, or a cartoon with Disney eyes, or this Ewok-esque dog—it sparks a nurturing instinct. You want to cuddle it, take it home, and never think of anything else. It’s why the MIA is expecting a big, nurturing crowd for its upcoming Dog Day MIA event on September 7 (cute dogs welcome).

Yes, these dogs are real. So is your uncontrollable urge to kick them off that ledge.

Yes, these dogs are real. According to researchers, so is an uncontrollable urge to squeeze them harder than necessary.

But cute can also spark uncontrollable rage. Researchers recently showed people pictures of cute things as well as aesthetically neutral things, and most people got angry when looking at the cute things. In fact, given some bubble wrap, they popped a lot more of it when looking at cute pictures—a manifestation of anger.  Here’s a personal example: When I was much younger, my little sister always wore this certain adorable sweatshirt—she was adorable, the sweatshirt was adorable, and all I wanted to do was punch it. In fact, I called it her “punchy shirt.”

Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense, and scientists think that’s because the brain isn’t making sense when it perceives cuteness. It’s confused. Both care-giving and aggression—the act of release in squeezing, hitting, punching—are highly rewarding: dopamine floods the brain cortex. And it’s possible that frustration at not being able to satisfy the intense desire to care for the incredibly cute thing leads to violence—right reward, wrong instinct. Cute overload.

"Kawaii" girls in Japan. So cute they're creepy.

“Kawaii” girls in Japan. So cute they’re creepy.

In some cultures, artists have manipulated this response for centuries. It’s what Japanese cartoonists are banking on when drawing manga and what some Japanese girls are banking on when they modify their appearance to look kawaiiI’m cute, take care of me: obsession meets male aggression in a traditionally paternalistic society. It might even explain the unforeseen phenomenon of Bronies: teenage boys, raging on hormones, addicted to My Little Pony. Or why a lot of people want to punch Jeff Koons.

There are other artistic lessons here: Contemporary artists hoping to provoke anger and outrage with intentionally ugly work might want to reconsider their tactics. And museums might want to watch their cute art. Visitors haven’t yet hugged the charming Japanese sculpture Your Dog to pieces at the MIA, and perhaps that’s because it’s cute but also huge, almost menacing. Were it small and cuddly like, say, an infant pig, heaven help it.