Ever reacted to the sight of a cute puppy or darling infant by squealing, "I want to eat you up!"? Or maybe you can't help but want to pinch your grandbaby's adorable cheeks.You're not alone. New research finds that seemingly strange aggressive responses to cuteness are actually the norm.
In fact, people not only verbalize these aggressive desires with phrases like, "I just want to squeeze something!" they also really do act them out. In the study, presented Friday (Jan. 18) here at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 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," said study researcher Rebecca Dyer, a graduate student in psychology at Yale University. "You know, you can't stand it, you can't handle it, that kind of thing."
Dyer got interested in what she and her colleagues call "cute aggression" after chatting with a fellow student about how adorable Internet pictures often produce the desire to squish or squeeze the cute critter. All the existing research on cuteness suggests the reaction should be the opposite, she told LiveScience. People should want to treat a cute thing with gentleness and care.[Gallery: World's Cutest Baby Wild Animals ]
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."