A highlight of any nature travel experience is seeing baby animals: fuzzy and clumsy Churchill polar bear cubs, just emerged from the den; young Yellowstone wolves tumbling and rolling as they “play” fight; or inexperienced lion offspring, learning how to stalk and hunt.
We all know that babies — of almost any species — are cute and that we’re drawn to watching them. Recently, however, researchers in Japan published a report that demonstrates that looking at pictures of puppies or kittens doesn’t just make you feel happy, it can also increase your attention to detail and improve your productivity.
The kawaii factor
During a study that was conducted at the Hiroshima University’s Graduate School of Integrated Arts and Sciences in Japan, forty-eight students were randomly assigned to one of two groups: either one shown a series of pictures of baby animals or one that viewed photos of adult animals. A control group saw images of tasty and delicious foods. The students were then asked to complete a task similar to playing the American board game Operation, an activity that requires a high degree of concentration. Those who looked at the pictures of the cute, baby animals outperformed their peers by a significant margin. This was true for both the male and female students participating in the study.
The authors of the report, which was published in September in PLOS One, an online journal, concluded that kawaii (Japanese for “cute”) things not only make us happier, but also can affect our behavior. Cute was defined as “a set of features that are commonly seen in young animals: a large head relative to body size, a high and protruding forehead, large eyes, and so forth.” They wrote, “viewing cute things improves subsequent performance in tasks that require behavioral carefulness, possibly by narrowing the breadth of attentional focus.” In other words, the feeling that something is adorable prompts a person to want to be closer to and know more about the object; and that may, in turn, concentrate one’s attention.
Is it cuteness, or something else?
On the other hand, several other studies have shown that short breaks of all kinds, whether to look at a reporter trying to outsmart a military dolphin or to check out cats that look like Hitler (or “kitlers”), can help keep you more focused throughout the workday. Web browsing has been shown to refresh tired workers and enhance their productiveness, compared with working straight through or engaging in other activities, such as making personal calls or sending texts or e-mails. For example, a 2009 University of Melbourne study concluded that “short and unobtrusive breaks” made workers more productive than their counterparts who refused to give in to the siren song of the Web.
The Hiroshima University researchers do note that the psycho-physiological state underlying the feeling of cuteness has to be more fully explored before any firm conclusions as to why cuteness improves concentration can be reliably reached. There are also cultural responses to cuteness, which need to be investigated — while Japanese participants come from a culture where the reaction to kawaii hardly differs between males and females, gender might play a bigger role for those from a European nation.
Still, we do know that whether we’re at home or work, we may be able to increase our efficiency by putting cute objects around us. And that’s good news for all of us who keep a photo of a beloved pet within elbow’s reach.
Do you have a favorite baby animal video or Web site that never fails to make you smile — or feel more productive?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,