This is particularly likely to happen when we see something that fits the 'baby schema'—large, wide-set eyes, round cheeks and small chins. It doesn't matter if it's not actually a human baby, or even a real animal. We think cartoons are cute if they fit this schema, we can feel this about stuffed animals, and Google designed its first self-driving car to fit this format so that we would be less scared of the new technology.
In the cute-aggression research, the authors propose that because this cuteness creates in us such strong, positive feelings, our brains are overwhelmed by an expression of care, which the brain tries to counteract with an expression of aggression. This happens because humans sometimes have 'dimorphous displays': we don't always respond to things with a single emotion, but with two emotions simultaneously. And these can consist of both positive and negative emotions that are all muddled up.
Dimorphous emotions happen when we feel so overwhelmed by emotion. Probably to avoid emotional overload that could cause harm to it, the brain throws in a counteracting emotion—like crying when we are really happy, or smiling at a funeral, or wanting to squeeze something we really care about. That means next time you want to squeeze a cute animal, it probably doesn't mean you are sadistic towards cute things, it is more likely to mean that your brain is overloaded and trying not to short-circuit.
Let's tie this back in with evil. Having a tendency to actually hurt fluffy animals or little babies is probably well within many people's conceptualisation of evil. But, loving them so much that your brain has to protect itself from exploding with joy? That probably isn't.
Speaking of aggression towards things we love, a target of mine is my significant other. I like to playfully slap him, squeeze him and annoy him. But at what point does this stop being cute and start being aggressive? Should I be worried? Should he?
It turns out that the term cute aggression might be a misnomer, not fitting with commonly accepted definitions of aggression at all. Cute aggression probably really isn't aggression at all, it just looks like aggression. This is even something the researchers who coined the term accepted. So if that isn't real aggression, what actually is aggression?
US-based psychological scientist Deborah Richardson has been studying aggression for decades. Together with Robert Baron, in 1994 she defined aggression as 'any behaviour directed toward the goal of harming another living being'. Aggression, they argue, has four necessary characteristics. First, aggression is a behaviour. It's not a thought, idea or attitude. Second, aggression is intentional. Accidents don't count. Third, aggression involves wanting to harm. You need to want to hurt someone. Fourth, aggression is directed towards a living being. Not robots or inanimate objects.
As Richardson explains, 'Breaking a plate or throwing a chair to express general annoyance would not be aggression. Trying to hurt your mother by breaking her prized antique plate or throwing a chair at your friend in hopes of hurting him would be considered aggression.'
When we look past the playful, pseudo-aggressive behaviours we sometimes have in relationships to more serious aggression, the question becomes: why do we hurt the ones we love? Well, anger appears to be a key motivation. In a 2006 study on aggression towards loved ones by psychologists Deborah Richardson and Laura Green, participants were asked to discuss their aggression towards a person with whom they had been angry in the last month. Thirty-five per cent stated they had been angry with a friend, 35 per cent with a romantic partner, 16 per cent with siblings and 14 per cent with a parent. The report also found that most of these people acted aggressively towards the people they were angry with. Our loved ones are easily accessible, often stir up strong emotions in us, and we are often dependent on them in some way. This seems to be a potent mix for becoming the targets of our aggression.
For romantic partners specifically, motives for aggression and violence also include retaliation for emotional hurt, to get a partner's attention, jealousy and stress. We hurt those we love for so many reasons. Some of those reasons are difficult, deeply rooted and hard to control. But there are a few things that we can control to reduce our likelihood of acting aggressively.
One may involve simply grabbing a snack.
According to a 2014 study by Roy Bushman and colleagues, self-control requires brain food in the form of glucose (sugar). Because aggression can result from poor emotional and physical self-control, they wanted to explore the link between glucose and aggression. They asked 107 married couples to measure their sugar levels every morning before breakfast and every evening before bed for three weeks. The researchers also measured their aggression levels towards
their partner by giving each participant a voodoo doll along with 51 pins, and telling them, 'This doll represents your spouse. At the end of each day, for 21 consecutive days, insert between 0 and 51 pins in the doll, depending how angry you are with your spouse. You will do this alone, without your spouse being present.'
The researchers also measured aggression at the end of the study by giving participants the ability to blast their spouse with a noise through headphones. The noise was specifically selected to be a mixture of sounds that most of us hate, including fingernails scratching on a chalkboard, dentist drills and ambulance sirens. According to the researchers, 'Basically, within the ethical limits of the laboratory, participants controlled a weapon that could be used to blast their spouse with unpleasant noise.' Luckily for the spouses, and unbeknownst to the participants, the noise did not actually reach the spouses' ears, but was recorded by a computer instead.
Participants who had lower glucose levels stuck more pins into the voodoo doll and blasted their spouse with louder and longer noises. The researchers concluded that eating regularly and keeping up your glucose levels should help to reduce aggression and conflict in relationships. So, next time you feel like fighting with a partner, eat something first. Have a chocolate bar. Make sure you are actually angry and not just hangry.
This excerpt ends on page 31 of the hardcover edition.