Tears of Joy

Aragón’s research delves into dimorphous expression

Oriana Aragón researches human emotions and how people perceive, engage and react emotionally to the things they encounter, including dimorphous expressions, which, according to Aragón, are “strangely negative responses to positive events, like crying tears of joy or seeing a puppy so adorable you want to squeeze it or a baby so cute you want to smoosh its face. These reactions have been experienced by all of us and have always been there. My research simply identified and described it and put it out there, so more people are relating to it.”

To study this phenomenon, the assistant professor of marketing has conducted surveys, qualitative cross-cultural linguistics analyses, behavioral laboratory experiments and neuroscience methodology by observing participants’ neural responses to cute babies.

Since Aragón’s dimorphous expressions research first appeared in 2013, she has received countless national and international media inquiries, including the likes of Good Morning America, Newsweek, The New York Times, Washington Post, NPR and Discovery TV.

“To this day, I have about three to four media interactions a month,” she says. “I sense the media’s thirst for this phenomenon is [because] people can relate to it. Whether you’re in ivory towers or on main street, it’s human behavior, and the press recognizes this behavior as something many people, including themselves, have experienced.”

Aragón does as many interviews as she can, in part to clarify her research for the public: “I think it’s important that academicians do all they can to help disseminate an accurate interpretation of their work. And I think it’s important for the people who help fund our work to be made aware of some of the interesting research that’s being done.”

Aragón’s desire to study emotions started well before she attended graduate school at Yale. It was as an undergraduate at UC-San Diego, where she worked with children with autism under Professor Jaime Pineda in cognitive science and neuroscience. Seeing the children’s difficulty in reading expressions inspired her to delve deeper into how people understand each other.

In 2012, she decided to take her research even further when, thanks to late-night television, she gained some unexpected insight on emotionally negative responses to positive events. 

“I was watching Conan O’Brien, and he had actress Leslie Bibb as a guest,” she says. “When talking about a cute puppy, she was gritting her teeth, and then, she referred to a friend’s baby that was so adorable she wanted to punch it. The next day, I told my father about the exchange, and he said it was no different than my grandmother and grandfather pinching a baby’s cheeks. It made me realize these types of emotional reactions are everywhere, and I wanted to expose them even more.”

Aragón believes knowing more about dimorphous expressions, beyond their significance to marketing and consumer behavior, can have societal benefits.

“A lot of our conflict today has to do with diverse schools of thought,” she says. “I truly believe that by better understanding each other’s positions, especially in polarizing times, we will be able to empathize and sympathize with one another, which hopefully will create a more civil environment for us to interact in.”

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