(Image via Kit Katherine, Flickr CC)
Or: A lesson in always checking your sources
I began writing this article in response to a TED Talk by Jane McGonigal about how video games could potentially prolong life.Read More
The U.S. Tennis Association just wanted to fix a few cracks in its Luis Armstrong Stadium. So what are New York City community boards, the last vestige of a millenia-old democratic process, getting worked up about?Read More
What if looking at cute cats made you smarter and more attentive?
By Katie Bainbridge
If I told you that your habit of checking icanhazcheesburger.com was making you smarter, would you believe me?
What if I pinky promise I’m not trolling you? That didn’t work either? Ok, what if I told you I had science to back me up?
Not too long ago, a team of researchers decided to look into the effect of “cute” images on our ability to perform tasks. My guess is that a researcher was scolded for procrastinating on the daily squee one day, and she responded by muttering under her breath: “I’ll show you… I’ll show all of you!” (Cue dramatic music, dim the lights, and zoom in on her shadowy, ominous expression).
The study is titled “The Power of Kawaii: viewing cute images promotes a careful behavior and narrows attentional focus,” and it shows that, you guessed it, cute images promote careful behavior and narrow attentional focus. But what is cute? It seems like an awfully subjective word, doesn’t it?
In this context, the scientists are referring to baby schema, which is the undeniable “baby” look that all adorable things have: a large head relative to body size, high and protruding forehead, large eyes.
Baby Schema is often used in cartoons to make characters more adorable (coincidentally, “kawaii” is a Japanese word for a specific big-eyed and cute aesthetic). Why are baby things cute? The ethological theory is that we have an evolutionary drive to take care of baby-like things, so we find creatures with baby-like characteristics irresistible. While I have not conducted a study with a statistically significant sample size, anecdotally speaking I know this to be true. When I see a baby or a dog or (especially) a baby dog, I lose all control of myself. Rational Katie becomes a prisoner inside her own body, watching helplessly as a dopamine-driven monster lunges herself at the baby/animal, regardless of whether the baby, animal, owner, or parent want her to. It’s humiliating.
Now that we’re on the same page regarding “cute,” onwards to the Science!
Researchers had two groups of participants play Operation, the game with the fat guy on an operating table and body-themed puns hiding in metal lined holes all over his body.
After the participants had played one round, they were told to take a “break” before their next session. Researchers then walked in nonchalantly. “Hey, since you’re here, would you mind taking a look at these pictures of animals? It’s for, uh, a completely unrelated study. We could use your help picking which images we use. Yup, completely unrelated to what you’re doing here.”
One group was shown images of cute baby animals and the other group was shown images of adult animals. Both groups were then asked to play Operation again. The results:
The baby animals group crushed the competition. It may not look like much in that table, but the baby animal group improved (as in removed more body-puns with better accuracy) by 44% in their second round, and the adult animal group improved by only 12%. They also completed the game a full 12 seconds sooner in their second round, compared to a meager 0.8 second improvement in the adult animal group. That is a staggering difference.
“Ok,” said the Cute-Overload-loving-researchers, “but why the hell is this happening?” Why would looking at baby animals improve performance? Shouldn’t seeing an infant animal prompt you to use slow, careful movements, the way seeing a baby causes you to slow and exaggerate your speech? Maybe the cute animals steadied their hands so they were more careful and could therefore work quickly. In that case, would this experiment work on a non-motor task? Operation replicates a sort of abstract care-giving (like, really, really abstract), so maybe the baby animals made the participants more nurturing, which motivated them to perform fake surgery better? So would the same effect be seen in a non-nurturing task? Is it really the cute animals causing the effect, or the pleasurable feelings produced by looking at cute animals?
I have to say that I love a study that gives a thorough smack-down to all of your “What-ifs.” I am a nit-picky bastard when it comes to other people’s research, and boy do I get a kick when researchers answer my questions before I’ve even had a chance to climb up on my high horse and judge their methods, which brings us to…
Same set up: participants came in, completed a task, took a break, were hoodwinked into looking at pictures, and performed the task again. This time, the task was a visual search and the researchers introduced another group of pictures: food. The logic was that if it were happy feeling baby animals gave you that caused the performance boost, the happy feeling you get browsing pretty food pictures should do the same thing.
The task required participants to search a block of numbers for how many times a cue number appeared. So in the example below, 8 is the cue number and it appears twice. The participants had to complete as many matrices as possible within a time limit.
Again: participants shown pictures of baby animals SHUT IT DOWN. Like damn, that is an impressive chart. The second experiment delivered even more impressive-looking results from a task that had no motor component, no social component, and controls for general-happy feelings.
While this invalidated every previous hypothesis they had for why the original performance boost occurred at all, it also affirmed that performance is increased due to baby-animals, and not general dopamine bursts.
The researchers conducted a third experiment in which they probed deeper into exactly what effect the pictures had. The theory is that the baby animals are narrowing attentional focus. See, humans have a tendency to see the big picture before they see the details. This is called the Global Precedence Effect. It has been shown that mood plays a role in just how much we favor the global vs local—components of an image. For example:
You probably see the big H and L (the Global components) before you see the little F’s and T’s (the local components) that make up those letters. So if I asked you if the above image contained the letter “T”, it would take you a bit longer to react accurately than if I asked you if it contained the letter “L.” There’s nothing wrong with noticing the L before the T, but it does take us a bit more time and energy to override the impulse to notice the big letter first. That is, unless you’ve been browsing cute animal photos recently.
In which case you are more cognitively flexible and can identify both global and local components with almost equal speed and ease. Cool.
So the next time your boss scolds you for looking at your friend’s tumblr of kitten GIFs at work, just tell her you’re prepping your brain to perform detail-oriented tasks with better accuracy and speed. Because it’s true.
Hello and welcome to first edition of the Weekender of the New Year.Read More
When researching for a project or a new article, we often come across many great reads that are worth sharing. These often turn into heavily annotated notes or even whole segments, left on the cutting floor. So we’re introducing the Reading List, a new segment of annotated research and interesting reads that we’ve done on a topic. Where applicable, we’ve also linked to personally annotated and highlighted copies. Help yourself, whether as a cheatsheet or an actual reading list. To be updated periodically.Read More
Bumper sticker spotted today: “I live in a society, not an economy”
— Karl Schroeder (@KarlSchroeder) October 9, 2012
Two recent events have led the debate about America’s economic future: the first has been general election for our next President; the second has been Hurricane Sandy, its devastating effects, and how to deal with such events in the future. The two are intricately tied, and not just because “climate science” has become a political issue. Hurricane Sandy has exposed the need for infrastructural investment in this country, and that goes to the core of our economic issues, as well as the difference between what an economy is and what a market is.
By Roman Kudryashov
Many voters and pundits have been making the case against President Obama’s reelection because he, as President, should have fixed the economic climate. The economy is only slightly better than that of four years ago, and four years ago was a pretty low point to compare to. The reluctance is understandable. However, it misses some really important points about how economics works.
Economics is not a science, however much people would like to believe. You can’t “test” economic theories the way you can in other fields. While we have anecdotal data and see real world applications of economic ideas, there are too many confounding factors (like, everything that happens in the world) to take any economic “experiment” seriously. Economics is a system of very many moving parts between very many parties; even so-called isolated economies, like that of North Korea, don’t “prove” anything since they’re impacted by events outside of their countries (international politics, populations, environmental factors, and so forth). Even the weather can have profound implications on economic situations: consider a drought or a hurricane.Read More
Comparing console games to smartphone games is like comparing a Kubrick film in theaters to a TV series. But console gaming has created a number of barriers to entry for creating great games. Why have we gone from the golden-age of gaming to the byzantine era?
I’m certain you’ve heard the phase “The Golden Age of Nintendo” before. Heck, you might even remember select snippets of this apex of entertainment personally. However, the sun no longer always shines on the Nintendo empire, despite the amazing advances in graphics, you’re just not as excited by what the new generation of console gaming has to offer, right?
Sure there’s the occasional diamond in the rough like Skyrim, but the exception does not prove the rule: more often than not, you find yourself re-playing the old games. You find yourself signing into PSN, Xbox Live, and Wii virtual consoles to download Megaman, Mario, and various other two-dimensional side-scrollers with CPU needs and graphic outputs so low you could play them on high-end refrigerators. Now, why are you paying money for obsolete games you already bought 20 years ago? Is it just nostalgia? Do you have an elitist sense of pride in “old-school” games? Or were games actually somehow just more interesting “back in the day?” Well, actually, they were: extensive open source access for third-party developers led to a boon of innovative titles, the likes of which we no longer see in the current and more restrictive console market. However, instead of lecturing you on Nintendo’s licensing rules, let’s talk about a game called Base Wars.Read More
Welcome to the 06 October edition of the Weekender! We bring you today some of the articles that we’ve been reading for the past week or so. I’m happy to say that we are not including any following the 2012 United States elections. ‘Phew! So sit back, relax and enjoy your weekend with our personal, curated recommended reading list.Read More
Convenience is most often exchanged for privacy, but the battle continues: can transactions still be private?
By Max Gi
Digital money is a fact of everyday life. It’s used on Amazon.com and eBay to buy goods; it’s used each time you pay for something with your credit card; it’s present when you receive your paycheck via direct deposit. Your loyalty or rewards points? Yep, there too. Even the tools to change cash into digital currency are widely available, where the hardest part of the whole process is going to your local Walmart, CVS, or Duane Reade (if you’re in the Tri-State area).
Not so long ago, things were much different. Getting access to the immense online marketplace was impossible unless you had plastic, and as a junior high and high school student, I had neither a card nor a documented income. I walked dogs, babysat, did grunt work in offices, manual labor, and a few things besides, all for cash-in-hand. Around this time, online commerce was booming. I had disposable income, and had just learned about eBay.
I signed up for an account and instantly, or as instant as 56kbs could be, went looking for things to spend my money on (mostly comic books, and comic-book-related-stuff). Like everyone else new to digital marketplaces, I found out that one couldn’t simply stuff cash in an envelope and send it via snail mail, for obvious reasons. How, then, would I be able to purchase any of these interesting items that I found? The answer was money orders.
Even as a minor, I was able to go to the post office and turn dead presidents into usable currency for these online transactions.Read More
“This is a box. Your turn.”
That’s how we’re starting it. For two years, What Are These Ideas has been publishing original and thought-provoking pieces, asking readers to think again about everything from genetics to social technology to today’s news. Today, we’re putting out our first contest, on the theme of “Think Outside of the Box.”
The premise is simple. Submit a drawing, illustration, photograph, or a series of any of those on the theme of “Think Outside of the Box,” to email@example.com – the winning pieces (and there’ll be multiple) will be published as part of our forth-coming app & print book of the same name. Winner will get a copy of the book (once printed), and of course, credit.
The purpose of the contest is two fold.
So… that’s our first box. Your turn.
Submit to firstname.lastname@example.org — For images to work on our app, they must be simple enough to understand on a phone screen. For images to work within our print book, they must be at least 300 dpi. Contest runs until December 1st.Read More
This week, we’ve been drawn in by great and powerful narratives: political narratives, Allied spies, consciousness and stories of how the human brain has evolved over the past thousand years. Sit back, relax and spend some time with the pieces that have kept our minds stimulated during this past week.