BuzzFeed Cute. Emergency puppy. The Internet can be a dark and twisted place, but it also overflows with pictures of baby animals that elicit squees and d'awws out of the cheerful and grouchy alike. Turns out there's actually a good excuse for looking at cute pictures, too: they could improve focus.
Possibly the cutest-named scientific study of all time, "The Power of Kawaii," found that participants who performed a motor dexterity test before and after looking at pictures of baby animals were more accurate after the fact. The study also analyzed grades of cuteness--while the testees performed up to 40 percent better after viewing puppies and kittens, looking at pictures of grown dogs and cats only increased their performance by about 12 percent. And the test itself was cute, too; the dexterity test was actually the Japanese equivalent of Operation.
The study goes on to say that cute pictures aren't a cure-all, explaining that the time taken in each test wasn't measured, so participants could've been more deliberate after viewing the pictures. That doesn't necessarily guarantee that the pictures themselves increased their focus or accuracy. The study also focused on only one task, so it's hard to say the results were globally applicable. But their breakdown of how cute objects affect us and why is pretty fascinating:
Recently, Sherman and Haidt challenged the classic view that cuteness is an innate releaser of parental instincts and caregiving responses. Instead, they proposed that perceiving cuteness motivates social engagement and primes affiliative, friendly tendencies. This attitudinal change is assumed to be linked with cognitive processes related to mentalizing (i.e., attributing mental states to agents) and sometimes indirectly leads to increased cares. If cuteness-induced behavioral carefulness is caused by a heightened motivation for social interaction, the effect would not be found in simple perceptual–cognitive tasks that do not suggest social interaction.
...The results replicated and extended the result of Sherman et al. that viewing cute images has a positive effect on behavioral performance in tasks that require carefulness. The effect occurred not only in the motor domain but also in the perceptual domain. Sherman et al. explained the result in terms of the embodied cognition perspective, which holds that the tenderness elicited by cute images is more than just a positive affective feeling state, but it can make people more physically tender in their motor behavior. The present study shows that perceiving cuteness not only improves fine motor skills but also increases perceptual carefulness. While Sherman and Haidt proposed that cuteness cues motivate social engagement, the current findings show that the effect of cuteness goes beyond the tasks that suggest social interaction.
And in case you were wondering, the study breaks down cuteness into its defining characteristics, just so we can know exactly what gives us the warm and fuzzies: "Cute objects are assumed to be characterized by baby schema. This is a set of features that are commonly seen in young animals: a large head relative to the body size, a high and protruding forehead, large eyes, and so forth."
Next time you get caught looking at cute pictures instead of working, you've got a perfect excuse. Especially if your day job is playing Operation.