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Why the Sight of "Cuteness" Triggers Aggression in Humans

Update Date: Jan 24, 2013 01:27 PM EST

Does the sight of a smiling baby make you want to reach out and pinch it on the cheeks? And does the sight of kittens and puppies make you want squeal with delight?  If you answered yes, you're not alone.

Previous research has found that looking at pictures of cute animals can increase productivity at work, but a new study reveals that adorable pictures may also bring out aggressive behavior.

Scientists say that the seemingly strange aggressive responses to the sight of cuteness may actually be normal.

The latest findings revealed that participants watching a slideshow of cute pictures popped more bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap than participants watching funny or neutral pictures.

Researcher Rebecca Dyer of Yale University believes that the response to cuteness is "almost a sense of lost control".

"You know, you can't stand it, you can't handle it, that kind of thing," Dyer, who presented her study at the annual meeting of Society for Personality and Social Psychology, told LiveScience.

She said that her and her team started researching the link between cuteness and aggression after they noticed how adorable pictures often made people want to squeeze or squish the subject.  They explained that the aggressive response or the desire to squeeze cute things seemed to be strange because all past research on cuteness suggested that the reaction should be the opposite and that people should want to treat a cute thing gently and lovingly.

Dyer and her co-author Oriana Aragon, who is also from Yale University, recruited 109 participants for their study. All participants had to look at images of cute, funny or neutral animals.  For example, "cute" pictures were images of fluffy baby animals, "funny" pictures would be animals in ridiculous situations and "neutral" pictures were of older, or more serious-looking animals.

Participants were asked to rate each picture on cuteness and also how much the pictures made them lose control. For example if it made them want to squeeze something or "what to say something like 'grr!'".

Researchers found that those who looked at pictures of cute images were more likely to feel the loss of control and were more likely to have the desire to make noises or squeeze something.

Those who were looking at the slideshow of cute images also popped more bubbles on a sheet of bubble wrap than participants who viewed funny or neutral photographs.

The latest findings are very strange.  The association between cuteness and aggression is puzzling because why could the inherent properties of something that needs care and protection encourage people to harm it?

Researchers explain that the "high-positive" affect of overwhelmingly positive emotions may find expression in a way that looks negative like a champion boxer breaking down in tears after taking gold medal in the Olympics.

Dyer said that another reason could be the frustration of not being able to have or take care of the cute thing.  She explained that people want to love and protect the puppy in the picture, but because they can't nurture a picture, this energy is released as a type of physical aggression like popping bubbles off bubble wrap.

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