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.
Katie Bainbridge studied neuroscience at Sarah Lawrence College and Oxford University. She likes brains, babies, and baby brains. She works in science publishing and hopes to pursue a PhD in educational neuroscience. She lives in New York City with a scruffy musician and a kitten. Katie believes, above all else, that humans are awesome.Contact: