Back Off, Boss: Cute Kitten Videos May Improve Work Performance

The power of cuteness is deeper and more compelling than it seems

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Got caught at work playing Kittenwar or cooing over a puppy cam? No problem: tell your manager you were only trying to improve your attention to detail. In a series of experiments, a new study shows that viewing cute images enhances performance on tasks that require careful focus and dexterity.

Researchers at Japan’s Hiroshima University found that after people looked at adorable kitten and puppy pictures — but not images of adult cats and dogs — they significantly increased their accuracy on an agility task, namely the children’s game Operation. The game involves using tweezers to extract plastic body parts from tiny compartments in the game-board patient, without hitting the edges and triggering a loud buzzer. (The finding confirms that of an earlier study.)

But the scientists wanted to know more: does cuteness increase care simply by slowing down behavior, much the way adults and even children stretch out their words and slow their speech when talking to babies? Alternatively, does the “Aww” response heighten attention only to social and caring tasks — like performing imaginary surgery or nurturing a child — or does it enhance accuracy more generally? Or, perhaps, does cuteness improve performance just because it makes them feel good?

(MORE: Cute Overload: Can Watching a Puppy Cam Improve Your Motor Skills?)

To many, cuteness itself seems like a trivial distraction. But researchers now believe it is an essential emotional trigger, evolved over eons to help new parents engage in a care-taking task that is often difficult and always demanding. The reason babies, kittens and puppies bring us such pleasure — and millions of hits to thousands of websites — is that characteristics associated with infancy cue our brains to feel warm and caring. And that can change the rest of our behavior.

The features of cuteness are universal, but not just anything can be cute: the key characteristics involve disproportionately large heads and eyes, clumsy behavior and apparent but endearing helplessness. In short, features shared by young animals.

Japan, of course, is an excellent place to study cuteness. More than most cultures, the Japanese have elevated cuteness on their cultural stage: it’s not a coincidence that Hello Kitty and the big-eyed girls of anime come from Japan. As the study’s authors note, the etymology of the word for cute in Japanese, kawaii, is telling. The word’s root originally meant blushing with shame, being unable to bear to see something pitiful. That shifted to a notion of unbreakable attachment, of being involuntarily compelled to help and care, suggesting that cuteness is the drug that addicts parents to children, a heavy bond hidden in fuzzy cuddliness. And indeed, modern neuroscience is demonstrating that brain systems first explored for their roles in addiction actually evolved at least in part to compel love and caregiving.

(MORE: Are Parents Really Kid Junkies? What the Research Says)

Researchers used the Operation experiment to determine whether cuteness simply slowed behavior to create cautious accuracy. The experiment involved 48 college students, half men and half women. In the first session, they played a Japanese version of Operation and were asked to work at their own pace and shoot for the highest score.

One group was then asked to view seven images of puppies and kittens, which were presented sequentially on cardboard squares (some had been downloaded from royalty-free Internet cute sites). Students were asked to rate how cute, exciting, pleasant and infantile each image was. A second group rated pictures of adult cats and dogs on the same scale. Afterward, both groups played another round of Operation.

Confirming the earlier research using the same board game, only the students who saw the puppies and kittens improved in the second round of the game, by 44%.  Moreover, the higher they rated the images for being cute and infantile, the better their game score was. In addition, their reaction time also increased — it took them 12% longer to complete the task — suggesting that cuteness might well increase care by slowing behavior.

(MORE: Why Spamming Your Friends with Cute Kitties Is Good Karma)

However, an additional set of experiments showed that it’s more complicated than that. In a second study, another 48 students performed a different test before and after seeing images either of baby or adult animals, or of enticing food. The food pictures were included to determine whether pleasant images could trigger the same improvements as cute ones. The task here involved spotting selected numbers from a random array of digits: for example, counting how many 8s appeared in a square grid of 40 numbers.

In this experiment, viewing the baby animals not only dramatically improved participants’ accuracy — but also improved their speed, suggesting that cuteness doesn’t always work by simply increasing caution. And even though the food images were rated as more pleasant than the baby animals, they had no effect on performance, showing that the effect wasn’t just caused by being in a better mood.

A third experiment compared students ability to spot either a global pattern (finding a letter H shape when it is made out of letter F’s) or a local one (finding T’s in an L-shaped array) on a timed test. Typically, people first tend to focus on the “global” or bigger pattern before they home in on details, so they spot this pattern more quickly. However, viewing baby animals made people equally fast at both tasks.

(MORE: The Science of Women and Cats: The Bond Is Real)

The authors conclude: “The present study shows that perceiving cuteness not only improves fine motor skills but also increases perceptual carefulness.” And, they note that cute objects might be useful to “induce careful behavioral tendencies” in “specific situations, such as driving and office work.” So, I guess all that time I spend on may not be wasted after all.

The study was published in PLoS One.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.