Given the undying popularity of kitten, puppy and baby videos on the Web, it might be worth asking, Does exposure to so much cuteness affect our behavior?
Scientists theorize that the “Awwww” reaction is an evolutionary advantage: it exists to evoke caregiving by parents. Research has shown that the key characteristics of cute — little in size, big-eyed, helpless, clumsy — appear in the young of all mammals that require parental care. Without some source of immediate pleasure in return, it would be hard to convince adults to meet the demands of their small, but loud and often stinky and cranky offspring.
Still, millions of adults spend countless hours online reveling in the cuteness of creatures they didn’t give birth to. So, with this year’s installment of one of the Internet’s top purveyors of cuteness — the streaming live video of a litter of shiba inu puppies (there’s a new litter each year) — the Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal dug out one of the few studies to examine the effects of cute on viewers’ behavior.
Watch the video here:
Given that millions of people are going to watch this thing over the next few months, I started to wonder: could watching puppies (spooning, falling asleep on their backs, kissing each other’s heads, annoying their mom) have some sort of real effect on the world? Could this mass injection of cuteness into the mindstream of America do something to us? I’m sixty-five percent not kidding here.
He cites a 2009 study by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues, in which women were asked to play the classic children’s board game “Operation” before and after watching either “high cuteness” slideshows of puppies and kittens or “slightly cute” shots of adult cats and dogs. You probably remember Operation from your childhood: you use tweezers to carefully extract tiny plastic organs from a patient without scraping the sides of the organ cavities; it requires significant manual dexterity in order not to trigger the loud buzzer that signals you’ve veered off course.
Women who viewed the “high cuteness” images got better at the game, removing an average of 1.8 more organs successfully, compared with those who were exposed to less cuteness. The same effect was found when another version of the experiment was run including male participants. Improved performance was linked with perception of cuteness and feelings of tenderness toward the animals, and not simply with better mood after viewing the pictures.
The research shows a clear link between cuteness and caregiving, demonstrating how the perception of cuteness not only creates a desire to care, but also improves your ability to do so safely. That’s important since young creatures require delicate handling. Dosing yourself with cuteness may then help with other tasks that require manual dexterity, perhaps even something like surgery. Or, as Madrigal suggests, it could boost the fine motor control needed to manipulate images in Photoshop.
Oddly, however, I could find no studies exploring the relationship between cuteness and mood, despite the fact that people overwhelmingly seem to find it uplifting. While it’s possible that the puppycam could lead to better Internet artwork, I’d bet that cuteness has even bigger effects on positive social emotions like feelings of warmth, empathy and compassion. Those traits are probably more useful in parenting — not to mention in the countless other situations in which conflict may arise. As they say, however, more research is needed. I’ll volunteer to watch the kittens!