A lot of us are working from home right now; and if you happen to be someone who’s not used to the freelance life, it may be harder than you imagined. After a couple of hours of focusing at your computer, you more often than not might find yourself googling things like “puppies in baskets” or “baby goats” before you know what’s happened.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. It turns out that you just may be doing yourself—and your boss—a favor. According to a paper published in the peer-reviewed science journal PLOS One, looking at pictures of cute baby animals doesn’t just make you feel happy, it can increase your attention to detail and improve your concentration and productivity.
Kittens cultivate concentration
Research has long shown that humans are predisposed to respond positively to cute, baby-like features: big eyes; large heads; and high, protruding foreheads—known as the “baby schema.” This mental codification activates a number of innate processes in us, including nurturing behavior and smiling. Along with human babies, baby animals exhibit this schema, too, which helps explain why we think kittens and puppies are cuter than cats and dogs.
Nurturing instincts aren’t the only responses stimulated by the baby schema, say researchers at the Hiroshima University’s Graduate School of Integrated Arts and Sciences in Japan. They found that cute images of baby animals may also have an impact on attention and perception.
A team of scientists led by researcher Hiroshi Nittono conducted three experiments with 132 university students. In the first experiment, a group of 48 college students were asked to play a game similar to the American board game Operation, an activity that requires a high degree of concentration. The students were asked to use tweezers to remove tiny plastic body parts from holes in the body of a “patient” without touching the sides of the holes. After playing one round of the game, half of the students looked at a series of seven images of cute kittens and puppies, while the other half viewed pictures of adult dogs and cats.
The students who had looked at cute baby animal photos significantly improved their performance on the second round. Interestingly, they engaged in the task at a slower, more deliberate pace after viewing the photos. The students who had looked at adult animal photos showed no change in performance and completed the task in the same amount of time in both trials.
In a second experiment, 48 students (who did not participate in the first experiment) performed a visual task, in which they were asked to look for double digits in a series of random matrices with numbers. The students were to give as many accurate responses as possible in three minutes. Then, the students looked at pictures before doing the task again. One group looked at cute baby animals, another at less cute adult animals and a third at pleasant-looking food.
While all three groups did about the same before looking at the photos, the baby animal group did far better after examining puppies and kittens, versus the groups that looked at dogs and cats or steak and sushi. The scientists concluded that pictures of baby animals made the study participants more focused and more careful, behaviors “induced by the cuteness-triggered positive emotion.”
For the third experiment, 36 students (who did not take part in either the first or second experiments) were asked to identify a series of stimuli displayed on a screen while they were timed. Each stimulus was a larger letter composed of different, smaller letters. For example, they might look at a series of tiny Fs that composed the shape of a large letter H.
Between each task, the students were randomly shown images of either baby animals, adult animals or neutral objects. After viewing cute baby animal pictures, the students were faster at processing the small letters relative to the large letter.
The result suggests that looking at cute baby animals helps shift people’s attention to better focus on details. One explanation for this could be that a baby requires a caregiver to pay careful attention to the baby’s mental and physical well-being, as well as to be vigilant against any possible threats. The implications are that cute images may be helpful in improving performance for jobs that demand significant attention to detail, such as air traffic controller or software programmer.
The kawaii factor creates capability
On the other hand, several studies have shown that short breaks of all kinds, whether to watch a crow sliding on a sled he invented (“crowboarding”) or—my personal favorite—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 e-mails or texts. For example, a 2009 University of Melbourne, Australia, study found that “short and unobtrusive breaks” made workers more productive than their counterparts who refused to give in to the siren song of the Web.
Too, there may be some cultural aspects to the findings. In Japan, kawaii (Japanese for “cute”) is a cultural phenomenon (for example, the craze for the bigheaded Hello Kitty), and reactions to kawaii hardly differ between females and males. However, for those from European nations, gender might play a larger role.
The calling of cute cubs
Still, it makes sense to me that something adorable would prompt us to want to be closer to it and know more about it; and that, in turn, would concentrate our attentions.
So, you’re going to have to excuse me now. After writing for a couple of hours, I feel like I need to google some clumsy and fuzzy Churchill polar bear cubs, just emerging from their dens; or perhaps some Yellowstone wolf pups, rolling and tumbling as they “play fight”; or maybe an inexperienced lion cub, first learning how to stalk and hunt.
Or maybe I’ll just search for some kittens, who look like they have funny, black moustaches.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,