Highlights: February 3–9

Here's what we loved reading this week, including: the health benefits of having friends, the art of personal choice, and the bugs in your brain.

Study Finds Images of Puppies Improve Cognitive Performance

Watching photos of ‘cuteness’ improves focus and attention to detail

Scientists in Japan have finally proven what Hello Kitty fans knew all along—kittens and puppies do more than make us feel good, they improve our cognitive funcitoning.

The Study of Cuteness

Kawaii is a Japanese word that means ‘cute’. The popularity of Kawaii things stems from their ability to elicit positive feelings. How popular are Kawaii infused products? YouTube alone features dozens of cat videos that have over ten million views apiece. Cuteness sells. But what else does it do?

Researchers in Japan wanted to see if viewing cute things had an effect on how people performed tasks involving sustained focused attention. Subjects were divided into groups and asked to perform the specific tasks. They were then shown either pictures of kittens and puppies, or adult dogs and cats, or pleasant foods, or neutral objects, after which they completed the tasks again. People who watched pictures of pleasant foods or neutral objects did not improve their performance on the subsequent task. Watching pictures of adult animals caused a slight improvement on the task. However, the real bonanza came from the group who watched pictures of kittens and puppies. People who watched pictures of puppies and kittens before doing the tasks were much more careful and paid more attention to detail and execution, significantly improving their performance.

Why Cuteness Improves Attention to Detail

The researchers believe that watching cute images triggers more than just positive feeling and an emotional ‘tenderness’. Viewing cute images elicits a perceptual, cognitive and a physical tenderness. This response obviously evolved in relation to caring for infants and young children, as handling them with care and being attuned to small changes in their behavior has clear evolutionary value. But this study demonstrated that perceiving cuteness also has an immediate impact on perception and behavior in contexts that have nothing to do with caregiving or social interactions.

How the Study of Cuteness Can Help You

Researchers concluded that inducing these carefulness tendencies could be useful in everyday tasks that require both perceptual and behavioral attention to detail, such as driving and office work. Although, such assumptions need to be verified by further studies, placing an adorable photograph of your children as infants (alas, their sullen adolescent shots won’t work), images from Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl IX (Spoiler Alert: Marta won) or LOLCats on your desk might give you just the extra oomph you need to get that promotion—or at least make you feel better if you don’t.

For more about how animals are used to treat loneliness, check out my upcoming book, Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries.

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Reference: 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): e46362. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046362