Why we go crazy for cute things
Seemingly strange aggressive responses to cuteness like "I want to eat you up!" are actually the norm, researchers say.
In fact, people not only verbalize these aggressive desires with phrases, they also really do act them out.
In the study, researchers found that people watching a slideshow of adorable pictures popped more bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap than did people viewing funny or neutral pictures.
"We think it's about high positive-affect, an approach orientation and almost a sense of lost control," study researcher Rebecca Dyer from Yale University said.
"You know, you can't stand it, you can't handle it, that kind of thing," Dyer said.
All the existing research on cuteness suggests the reaction should be the opposite. People should want to treat a cute thing with gentleness and care.
And indeed, Dyer said, it's not as though people really want to hurt a basketful of kittens when they see the furballs tumbling all over one another.
"We don't have a bunch of budding sociopaths in our studies that you have to worry about," she said.
But something odd seemed to be going on. So Dyer and her co-author, fellow Yale graduate student Oriana Aragon, first ran an experiment to see if cuteness aggression was a real phenomenon.
They recruited 109 participants online to look at pictures of cute, funny or neutral animals. A cute animal might be a fluffy puppy, while a funny animal could be a dog with its head out a car window, jowls flapping. A neutral animal might be an older dog with a serious expression.
The participants rated the pictures on cuteness and funniness, as well as on how much they felt the pictures made them lose control - for example, if they agreed with statements such as "I can't handle it!"
The participants also rated the extent to which the pictures made them "want to say something like 'grr!'" and "want to squeeze something."
Sure enough, the cuter the animal, the less control and more desire to "grrr" and squeeze something that people felt. Cute animals produced this feeling significantly more strongly than did funny animals.
The funny critters in turn produced the feeling more strongly than did neutral animals, perhaps because the funny animals were perceived as cute, too, Dyer said.
Still, those results could have merely identified a verbal expression for cuteness, rather than a real feeling. So Dyer and her colleagues asked 90 male and female volunteers to come into a psychology laboratory and view a slideshow of cute, funny and neutral animals.
Researchers told the participants that this was a study of motor activity and memory, and then gave the subjects sheets of bubble wrap. The participants were instructed to pop as many or as few bubbles as they wanted, just as long as they were doing something involving motion.
In fact, the researchers really wanted to know if people would respond to cute animals with an outward display of aggression, popping more bubbles, compared with people looking at neutral or funny animals.
That's exactly what happened. The people watching a cute slideshow popped 120 bubbles, on average, compared with 80 for the funny slideshow and just a hair over 100 for the neutral one.
Dyer said she and her colleagues aren't yet sure why cuteness seems to trigger expressions of aggression, even relatively harmless ones.
It's possible that seeing a wide-eyed baby or roly-poly pup triggers our drive to care for that creature, Dyer said. But since the animal is just a picture, and since even in real life we might not be able to care for the creature as much as we want, this urge may be frustrated, she said.
The study has been presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.