Does Looking at Cute Animals Improve Your Concentration?

The next time your boss catches you looking at photographs or videos of cute animals on the Internet, tell him you’re doing it to improve your productivity. When he gets that “I can’t believe you just said that” look on his face, tell him that it’s science. Then, before he gets that look again, show him a study recently performed at Hiroshima University in Japan.

In the study, psychologist Hiroshi Nittono and his team conducted three experiments. In the first, he asked 48 university students to play a game similar to the children’s game “Operation,” which tests both concentration and physical agility. The players are supposed to use tweezers to remove objects from the patient without touching the edges of the narrow openings, and thus setting off a buzzer. After recording their scores, half of the students were shown photographs of adult animals, while the other half were shown photos of cute baby animals.

“Cute” was defined for the study as the qualities of the young – having a large head relative to body size, large eyes, and a high, protruding forehead. These photos were chosen based on previous research on kawaii (the Japanese word for “cute”), which showed decisively that cute things produce positive feelings and “care-giving impulses” in humans, even if the cute faces were animals, and not human. While these previous studies went a long way towards explaining the Japanese fascination with such characters as “Hello Kitty” and “Pokemon,” the researchers were interested in seeing whether these care-giving tendencies had an effect on behavior, for example to make people more careful, and better able to concentrate.

After watching the photos, both groups played the game again. The group that saw the cute animal photos significantly improved their scores and were able to successfully remove more objects than before. The group that saw photos of adult animals showed no change. This indicated to the researchers that watching the photos of baby animals had not only improved the subjects’ ability to concentrate, but their fine motor dexterity as well.

More experiments, more baby animals

In the second phase of the study, another 48 university students were asked to perform a non-motor task involving a visual search. They were told to look at a matrix of numbers and note, within three minutes, how many times a specific digit appeared; the objective was specifically defined as finding as many instances of that digit as possible. The students’ scores were noted, and then this time the group was divided into three sub-groups. The first was shown photos of baby animals, the second photos of adult animals, and the third photos of tasty food items. Then the students performed the concentration exercise again. As with the first experiment, the students who looked at photos of baby animals improved their scores and thus – say the researchers – improved their ability to concentrate and to be more careful. The other two groups again showed no improvement.

A third phase of the study tested 36 university students, having them perform a global-local letter task. This involves indicating – as quickly as possible – whether a stimulus shown to them contained the letters “H” or “T,” and requires more concentration than it sounds as if it does because sometimes the letters students were searching for were “global” stimuli (the letter they were searching for was spelled out with other letters, such as the “H” below) and sometimes they were “local” stimuli (hidden inside clusters of letters that collectively spelled out another letter, such as the “L” below).

F F T
F F T
FFFFF F T
F F T
F F TTTTT

Generally, the students were able to find the global letters more quickly and easily than the local letters. Their scores were noted, and then as before the 36 students were split into three groups and shown photos of cute animals, adult animals, and neutral objects. And again the scores of the groups who saw the non-cute items remained unchanged, while the scores of the group that saw photos of cute animals improved. Score another win for the LOLCATS.

As for why all of this happens, that is still to be determined, as are practical applications for “cute animal productivity enhancement.” But it is fascinating, is it not, that things that make us smile also improve our concentration and our tendencies to be careful. As study author Hiroshi Nittono says, “Kawaii things not only make us happier, but also affect our behavior. This study shows that viewing cute things improves subsequent performance in tasks that require behavioral carefulness, possibly by narrowing the breadth of attentional focus.”



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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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