Tuesday, February 4, 2014

You're so cute: I could just eat you up! No, but really..

Cute Aggression
by: Nicole Uibel

Over the past few weeks one topic has really seemed to be following me: cute aggression. During a recent movie night, my friends and I decided to switch it up and see a classic: Of Mice and Men. Anyone who has been in high school should have read this Steinbeck classic, but if not let me brief you (*spoiler alert!*): George Milton and Lennie Small are our main characters searching for ranch work. George is cunning, yet small while Lennie is of great stature, but not great mental capacity. They dream of one day owning a farm where Lennie constantly discusses "tending to the rabbits." At their new job, Lennie is given a puppy from one of the ranch-hands. We watch him love and care for the puppy, but in the end he ends up accidentally killing it by stroking it too harshly. And some other bad stuff happens too (seriously go watch the movie).

Then a few days later, we were discussing a friends new puppy. One of the group members commented: "He's just so cute I want to hug him to death!" We all agreed and continued to coo. Someone responded, "that's called cute-cute syndrome, when you want to squish a cute animal." Now this concept may sound a little strange and off-putting, but how many of us see an adorable puppy or kitten or stuffed animal (like Agnes here) and have the urge to squish it?! I know I do!


Even more disturbing for some (and more fascinating to others), this reaction can happen toward people as well. Check out this greeting card by Uncooked. Valentine's Day is coming up soon... any takers?

And think about how many times your cheeks were pinched when you were a baby. Or how much you want to pinch a baby's cheeks when you see one? This idea all comes back to cute aggression.

During a study at Yale University, graduate student Rebecca Dyer demonstrated that aggressive tendencies increase with exposure to perceived ‘cuteness.’ She termed this phenomenon 'cute aggression.' Cute aggression is a term that refers to one's desire to preform aggressive acts towards an object one would normally consider ‘cute.’ Dyer had participants view images of cute, funny or neutral animals, and then provided them with an ambiguous story and options of several alternate endings. They also rated the images on how cute or funny they perceived a certain photo.

Cute, funny, and neutral animal examples   http://www.dogpictures.co/

Participants who viewed the cute animals were more likely to choose the more aggressive story ending, generally one ending with a loss of control. Some of the responses available were as simple as a "grrrr!" while others ranged to "I just cant handle it!" Dyer found that as the cuteness of the animals increased, so did the aggressive responses: the cuter the animal, the more negative the response. Conversely, after viewing the neutral photo, participants would choose responses such as: "I'm okay."

Dyer performed a follow up study where participants were given a sheet of bubble wrap. When watching neutral videos/slideshows of animals, participants popped 100 bubbles on the sheet. The funny slideshow resulted in 80 bubbles popped. But when viewing the cute video/slideshow, participants popped 120 bubbles on their sheet. Why the increase? Dyer speculates that the aggression is built up during the viewing, that because one cannot reach through the screen to cuddle the animal, aggression builds and finds an outlet through popping the bubbles. 

Some current theories on cute aggression include not having a proper outlet for these overwhelming feelings. Such as when the participants popped more bubbles viewing the cute slideshow. The act of wanting to cuddle or care for the cute animal in the picture manifests as frustration when one cannot preform the action. That frustration can then lead to aggression. 

Others argue that it could be too much of a good thing - having so many positive emotions they begin to exude themselves in a negative way, similar to when we cry when we are happy. In this manner, we self-regulate the high energy we feel when happy. One mechanism suggested for this act is that when the hypothalamus is stimulated by a strong neural signal (happiness, sadness, stress, etc) it sends a signal to the autonomic nervous system: parasympathetic receptors are connected to our lacrimal glands (aka tear ducts) and we release tears; nothing we can do about it. 

One of the most interesting facets of cute aggression is that the majority of research suggests we should in fact have the opposite reaction to cuteness: we should want to protect and nurture the cute thing. But this leads to yet another theory behind cute aggression: wanting to protect something so badly you hurt it. Of Mice and Men anybody? Lennie wanted to care for his pup so badly he ended up killing it. Researchers have suggested that cuteness is a precursor for releasing an instinct of parental care. And beyond that, viewing cute images of animals in a study done by Sherman et. al showed that participants were more likely to increase their behavioral carefulness (measured by performance playing Operation) as opposed to viewing funny pictures of animals. They suggest that viewing the cute images triggers compassion, and a parental instinct takes over and makes one be more careful with their behavior. The authors essentially argue that cuteness will then have the opposite effect of what Dyer found. Sherman found that viewing cute animals triggers compassion, and hence behavioral carefulness, while Dyer found cute animal photos trigger an increased aggressive response.

So what the heck is going on here? Is viewing cute images switching on our parental instincts or aggressive tendencies? Clearly, more research is needed in this field.

How many times did you have your cheeks pinched growing up? Well, take it as a compliment! Apparently all those cheek pinchers thought you were just the cutest baby on the block. 

Dunn, G. 2013. Science explains why we want to squeeze cute things. Thought Catalog. http://thoughtcatalog.com/gaby-dunn/2013/01/science-explains-why-we-want-to-squeeze-cute-things-to-death/.

Dyer, R. L., O. R. Aragon, C. Piasio, M. S. Clark, and J. A. Bargh. 2013. “It’s so cute I want to squish it!” How cuteness leads to verbal expressions of aggression. Unpublished. 

Fawcett, N. R. and E. Gullone. 2001. Cute and cuddly and a whole lot more? A call for empirical investigation into the therapeutic benefits or human-animal interaction for children. Behaviour Change 18:124-133.

Ferro, S. 2013. Science says adorable animals turn us aggressive. Popular Science. http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2013-01/science-says-adorable-animals-turn-us-aggressive.

Gaines, J. 2013. Why do we cry when were happy? Psychology Today.

Hasson, O. 2009. Emotional Tears as Biological Signals. Evolutionary Psychology 7:363-370.

Pappas, S. 2013. Why we go crazy for cuteness. LiveScience. http://www.livescience.com/26452-why-we-go-crazy-for-cuteness.html.

Sherman, G. D., J. Haidt, and J. A. Coan. 2009. Viewing cute images increases behavioral carefulness. Emotion 9:282-28). 

Sherman, G. D., and J. Haidt. 2011. Cuteness and digust: the humanizing and dehumanizing effects of emotion. Emotion Review 3:245-251. 

Check out this group who did a follow up study on cute aggression: love the interviews afterward!

1 comment:

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