Has your boss ever caught you looking at pictures of adorable kittens on the internet when you’re supposed to be working? If so, Japanese researchers may have provided you with the perfect excuse for putting off work and gawking at those cute little critters.
A new study by psychologists at Hiroshima University indicates that viewing pictures of kittens or puppies actually improved the ability of test subjects to concentrate and focus.
Previous research by American psychologists showed that seeing cute animal pictures could improve fine motor skills when playing a game like the classic Milton Bradley board game Operation. This new study, published in the latest edition of PLOS ONE, expands on those findings by demonstrating that the improved focus applies to mental tasks as well as physical ones.
The first experiment replicated the original Operation experiment. It included 48 participants who had to use tweezers to carefully remove small objects from holes without touching the edges of the holes. The second group of 48 different people was asked to locate a given number from an arbitrary succession of numbers within a limited amount of time. The final experimental group of 36 participants was asked to quickly identify letters as they were flashed on a television screen.
In the first two experiments, the tasks were performed both before and after looking at seven pictures of both puppies and kittens for one group or adult dogs and cats in the control group. In the second experiment, one subset of subjects was shown food images to see if they prompted effects similar to those of the cute animal images. All of the subjects were told that the pictures were for a separate experiment.
The results show a stark difference between the ‘cute’ group and the ‘adult’ group. In the Operation experiment, the cute group showed a 44 percent improvement at playing the game after viewing the images, while the adult group showed an 11 percent improvement. The cute group also took 12 percent more time to complete the task, while the adult group took 8 percent more time.
“This finding suggests that viewing cute images makes participants behave more deliberately and perform tasks with greater time and care,” the study’s authors wrote.
The results of the second experiment support this claim and make the case that this imparted focus translated to mental tasks as well. The kittens and puppies group improved their scores by about 16 percent after the break. In a switch from the first experiment, this group was also faster, increasing the number of sequences they completed by about 13 percent. By comparison, neither the groups that viewed images of cats and dogs nor the group that was shown food images saw any improvement in their overall performance.
The researchers conceded that the study had its limitations, citing emotional, psychological and cultural biases which may mean that the ‘cute effect’ – or ‘kawaii’ as it is know in Japanese – may not be applicable to all cultures. “Japan’s culture accepts and appreciates childishness at the social level,” the study noted, and the same experiment performed on Americans could have different results.
The research team advised that future studies should focus on the “psychophysiological” mental state that is induced by viewing cute images. They also said these findings could be used in the design of spaces where increased care is beneficial, “such as driving and office work.”