Have you ever observed a young child practicing while angry about having to practice?

Or tried practicing yourself when grouchy?

It’s not realistic to expect that we can always be in a great mood when it’s time to practice, but I remember a number of occasions when I was probably just wasting my time going through the motions while quietly stewing on the injustice of having to practice while the other neighbor kids were outside having fun.

Which makes me wonder – is there a such a thing as a mood that’s optimal for practicing? And if so, how do we get there?

50 million and counting

As you can imagine, there are a ton of research papers out there1. Some are exceedingly useful. Others are interesting, but of questionable usefulness (like the one which explores the physics of buttered toast tending to land butter-side down, and reads like an April Fool’s joke, except that it isn’t). And then there are those which seem a little silly, but also make you think (like the one which found that cows which have been given names produce more milk.)

So I thought it might be fun to look at a study in this latter category.

Ready?

The power of cuteness!

When we brought home a little puppy, and he promptly broke in his new home by peeing on the Christmas tree and pooping under the piano, I told the kids that it’s a good thing he’s super cute, because I’d be feeling very differently about him if he weren’t.

Indeed, whether it’s a baby human or animal, cute things make us smile. They capture our attention, and make us want to care for them (or strangely, squish them).

So there’s probably some evolutionary purpose for cuteness. But a Japanese study suggests that the power of cuteness might go further than mere survival.

That it might potentially have some effects on task performance and focus too.

Puppies vs dogs

A team of researchers recruited 48 college students to play a game similar to the classic ''Operation'' game.

Everyone played the game twice, and between each game was asked to rank 7 pictures in order of preference. One group was given pictures of cute puppies and kittens to rank (the baby animal group). Another group was given pictures of not-so-cute dogs and cats to rank (the adult animal group).

The researchers were curious to see if exposure to cute pictures would affect their performance on their second attempt at the game.

What?!

As it turns out, there was a difference in performance. The students who looked at the cute pictures successfully removed more pieces from the “patient’s” body, improving their performance by 43.9%. Those who looked at pictures of less-cute adult animals did not improve by much, with only a 11.9% change in performance.

How did this happen?

The researchers found that the participants in the baby animal group seemed to perform the task with more care, as they took more time on the second trial of the game. It took them 12.2% longer to complete round 2, while the adult animal group spent almost exactly the same amount of time on both trials (only a .8% increase).

 

From Nittono, H., Fukushima, M., Yano, A., & Moriya, H. (2012). The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus. PLoS ONE, 7(9).

But…why?

So…what’s the connection between cuteness and performance?

Did viewing cute pictures somehow cause them to slow down and take greater care? Perhaps eliciting more of a caregiving instinct, which transferred to the doctor-patient theme of the game?

Or was it simply because their mood improved?

Find the number

The researchers recruited a fresh set of 48 students to dig a little deeper.

The second study was set up just like the first, except this time, the task was a number-search challenge, which involves counting the number of times they could find a specific number within a grid of other numbers. In other words, a pretty emotion-neutral task, to rule out the caregiver instinct as a performance booster.

Also, they added a third group – who were shown pictures of yummy-looking food (to see if the performance gain was related simply to viewing pleasant-looking pictures).

Puppies vs dogs, round 2

Once again, looking at cute puppies and kittens led to a significant improvement in performance from round 1 to round 2. The baby animals group improved their accuracy score by 15.7%, and completed the task 13.2% faster.

Meanwhile, the adult animals group and food group performed about the same, with only a 1.4% (4.3% faster) and 1.2% (3.2% faster) improvement.

Seriously, why?

The second study replicates some of the findings from the first study, and suggests that eliciting the “awww” response doesn’t improve performance simply because of a caregiving instinct, or just by exposing people to pleasant imagery.

Based on findings from related studies, the researchers suggest that cute things don’t just contribute to a change in our mood and elicit an emotional response, but improve performance via a narrowing of our attention – where we become more attentive to small details. Hence, the performance improvement in both the “operation” game and digit-search task, each of which benefits from an increase in focus.

Caveats

But why does cute stuff make us more attentive to detail? It’s not really clear. Though it might have something to do with increased physiological activation (i.e. heart rate and breathing rate).

It’s possible that this could be a cultural phenomenon too. After all, Japanese society seems to accept and value cuteness or “kawaii” on a whole different level than it is in some other cultures.

Takeaways

I’m not sure if there’s a word to describe the mood state that is caused by looking at cute puppy and kitten photos/videos, and it’s not clear if this is the best possible mood for effective practice. However, if you’re having a bad day, it seems like it may be worth a shot to nudge yourself towards a better place by indulging in some cute animal videos before settling down to practice?

Or maybe this is the scientific rationale for putting pictures of our puppy in our case?

I don’t know if we can say for sure, but I hope you enjoyed this exploration of one of the quirky yet interesting research articles out there. And in the name of science, perhaps I’ll take a moment to watch some cute animal videos before proof-reading this article…

Additional stuff

Want to discover more studies that make you sort of chuckle and think at the same time? Check out the Ig Nobel Prize winners

And if you need to satisfy your cute animal fix, here’s “The 50 Cutest Things That Ever Happened” @BuzzFeed

Footnotes

  1. Currently, ~2.5 million new studies are published per year.