The team also conducted a second, completely different, experiment. This one was all about hurting innocent victims. Here, participants played a computer game against an opponent who they believed to be another participant in a different room. They had to press a button faster than their opponent, and the winner got to 'blast' their opponents with a noise, the loudness of which the winner got to control. Half of the participants got to blast right away after winning, while others had to do a short but boring task before they were allowed to administer the noise. The boring task involved counting the number of times a particular letter appeared in nonsense text. It was easy but tedious. Their imaginary opponent always chose the lowest blast level, so that there would be no need for retaliation.
Would you blast your opponent? How loud would you go? Finally, would you be willing to work for the opportunity to hurt them? The study results show that while many of us would be willing to hurt an innocent victim, only those who scored higher on sadism increased the sound once they realised that the other person did not fight back. Those were also the only people willing to do the boring task in order to hurt their opponents.
It appears that many 'normal' people are willing to be sadistic. The results led the researchers to argue that we need to get to know ourselves better if we want to really get an understanding of sadism. 'For the phenomenon of sadism to be fully addressed, its everyday nature and surprising commonness need to be acknowledged.'
What are the common characteristics of these kinds of sadistic behaviours? One common theme that appears is aggression. When you hurt something else, for example when you kill a bug, you are acting aggressively. Similarly, in order to get sadistic pleasure, it seems that most of the time one must first do something aggressive. So let's back it up a bit. What other kinds of aggression are there? Let's start with a type of aggression that you have probably felt but never understood: a weird feeling that you want to hurt tiny, fluffy animals.
One unexpected situation in which our sadistic tendencies seem to show themselves is in the presence of cute animals. Have you ever seen a puppy that was so adorable that you just couldn't handle it? Where you felt like you wanted to take your hands and squeeze its floppy little face really hard? Some animals are just so cute that we feel a bit like we want to hurt them. Kittens, puppies, baby quail, we want to squeeze them hard, pinch their cheeks, bite them, growl at them.
But why does this happen? Aren't psychopaths and serial killers known for hurting animals? Researchers assure us that most of us don't actually want to harm animals, so although it sounds sadistic, these emotions are not indicative of some deep, dark secret lurking inside you. You probably love Fluffy, and don't actually want to hurt him. However, this does not resolve the issue of why our brains tempt and torture us with a quasi-aggressive reaction. This feeling
of wanting to hurt things that we find cute is so common that there is a term for it—'cute aggression'.
Oriana Aragón and colleagues from Yale University were the first to study this bizarre phenomenon, publishing a paper about it in 2015. They conducted a number of studies on the idea. Participants in one of their studies were shown pictures of cute animals and handed a large sheet of bubble wrap. 'We hypothesised that if people have the impulse to squeeze while viewing cute stimuli, and we provide them with both cute stimuli and something to squeeze, that indeed they will squeeze.' Participants who viewed pictures of baby animals popped significantly more bubbles than those who saw pictures of adult animals.
The authors then wondered whether perhaps the aggression people felt would go away if the participants had something akin to an animal on their laps—something which would be an outlet for their feelings. For this, the researchers created a pillow 'made of extremely soft, silky fur material', and had half of their participants hold it while looking at cute pictures of animals. They reasoned that if provided with something to squeeze and caress, people might not have the aggressive emotions.
They found the opposite of what they were expecting. Participants showed more cute aggression because the researchers had 'added a tactile stimulus of cuteness'. They concluded that this may be indicative of what could happen if their participants had actually handled baby animals: 'When considering people handling actual small, soft, fluffy animals, [the added stimulus] may lead to an increase in these aggressive expressions.' In other words, seeing pictures of kitties online is squeeze-worthy, but handling them in person feels like it is just too much.
According to the research team, this also extends to babies. See how you respond to the following statements, which are from a longer list that Aragón and colleagues gave to their participants.
1. If I am holding an extremely cute baby, I have the urge to squeeze his or her little fat legs.
2. If I look at an extremely cute baby, I want to pinch those cheeks.
3. When I see something I think is so cute, I clench my hands into fists.
4. I am the type of person that will tell a cute child, 'I could just eat you up!' through gritted teeth.
If you agree with any of these statements, then you suffer from cute aggression not just towards kitties and puppies, but also to baby humans. This too can make for weird emotions, where parents might worry about their own feelings towards their children. (Why do I feel like I want to hurt my baby when I would never actually do her any harm?) It's one of many dark thoughts parents can have and don't want to share with anyone else, for fear of being labelled a bad parent, a bad person. But when this happens, don't be alarmed. This feeling seems to be quite normal, and isn't entirely surprising. Cute aggression is likely a by-product of an adaptive human characteristic. If we think something is cute, we generally want to keep it alive, we want to take care of it. This is probably also what has encouraged us to keep cute animals as pets in the first place.