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If you are feeling stuck, you might get benefits to be better at the task by watching cute animal videos.

Hosted by: Brit Garner
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Sources:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3260535/
https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0058248
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19348541
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3458879/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18466409

Image Sources:
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/portrait-of-a-happy-little-girl-laughing-and-smiling-gm911983386-251075804
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/newborn-twins-sleeping-newborn-babies-twins-sleep-in-bed-lovely-sleep-of-the-gm1073035972-287192598
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https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0046362#
https://www.istockphoto.com/photo/father-with-baby-working-at-home-gm905857252-249765760
[ ♪INTRO ].

I see you. Watching YouTube when you’re supposed to be working, huh?

Well, don’t sweat it. It turns out that taking a break to squee over some cuteness might actually benefit your work. There’s a lot we’re still learning, but according to some research, looking at cute animals is associated with a boost in focus and fine motor skills.

So the next time you’re sucked into one of those “cute puppy” stories on Snapchat, you might be doing yourself a favor. First, though, let’s back up and talk about what “cute” means, anyway. You might have your own opinions, but based on what psychologists have seen in studies, people generally find things cute because of what’s called baby schema.

That’s your classic baby look. Think a big head, large eyes, and chubby cheeks. Baby schema was first described in the 1940s, and the animal behaviorist that proposed it believed humans are hard-wired to respond to these characteristics with caregiving behavior.

Which intuitively makes sense. Babies are super fragile, and it’s in our species’ best interest to think they’re cute and important to care for. Evidence backs this up, too.

For example, in a 2009 experiment where researchers manipulated the baby schema of an image to be more dramatic, people tended to rate the subjects of those images as cuter and reported a greater desire to care for them. And it’s not just human babies: Other studies suggest that we tend to react about as strongly to babies of other species, like puppies, as we do to infants of our own species. So cute faces make us want to keep things safe.

But it’s a pretty big leap to go from that kind of caregiving behavior to a generally sharper mind and better motor skills. Researchers started making that jump around 2009, when a study was published in the journal. Emotion.

The researchers had 96 college students look at pictures of either baby or adult animals, then play the game Operation. It’s that board game where you have to use tiny little pliers to remove organs from an irate-looking man, and every time you make a wrong move, the board buzzes and the guy’s nose lights up. Yeah, it’s great and also terrifying.

Operation takes careful, nimble movements to do well. And in the study, participants who had been primed with baby animals did better at it than those who had looked at adult ones, to a degree that reached statistical significance. But there were some limitations to this.

For one thing, the participants weren’t timed, so it wasn’t clear whether they did better because cuteness boosted their fine motor control or just because it made them slow down. Also, Operation is essentially a caregiving task — you’re basically tending to a sick patient. So there was no guarantee that these results would extend to something that had nothing to do with caregiving.

To figure those things out, researchers in Japan took the reins in 2012 with a study called “The Power of Kawaii” — a Japanese word that essentially means “cute.” As part of their study, they had participants perform two experiments that relied on speed and had seemingly nothing to do with caregiving. In one, 48 people primed with either pictures of baby or adult animals had to find specific digits in matrices of random numbers. They were asked to complete as many matrices as they could in three minutes.

In the other, they had 36 people do a global-local letter task. That’s an exercise that tests for global precedence, or a person’s tendency to more easily process a whole image rather than its individual features. The participants looked at large letters made out of smaller letters and had to quickly say whether what they saw contained a certain character.

If they saw a large H made out of Ts, for instance, noticing the Ts would be a sign that they could pick out small details in a larger scene. In the end, the people who had looked at baby animals were faster and more accurate at the number matrices, and were more able to pick out details in the larger scenes than the other group. That suggested they had better focus and attention to detail.

Which is pretty surprising. Generally speaking, scientists think the way we react to baby schema is probably an evolutionary adaptation to make us better at caring for our young and ensuring their survival. The fact that this gentleness may bleed into other areas of our lives, though, feels like an unexpected bonus.

Like, on the surface, focusing on a bunch of numbers doesn’t seem like it should help you care for an infant. Scientists are still figuring out exactly why that might happen, but it could actually have something to do with another aspect of ensuring that kids survive: protecting them. After all, being super focused and able to pick out individual details might have helped our ancestors stay vigilant in protecting their young ones from threats.

Clearly, though, these aren’t ironclad explanations. There were plenty of limitations to the Japanese study, most notably the fact that researchers in general don’t quite understand what happens in the body when we react to cuteness. Scientists also haven’t really looked into how these effects might apply to seeing cute things in person, like if you’re working from home with your newborn.

This is an area ripe for exploration, and we can learn a lot if more researchers jump in. But either way, babies are pretty helpless, and our species has evolved to keep them alive at all costs. When you watch cute cat videos, you might just be borrowing a little of that evolutionary mojo to make you better at your next task.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow Psych, especially to our patrons on Patreon! We’re thankful for your support and your curiosity about the world. If you want to help us keep making content like this, you can go to patreon.com/scishow. [ ♪OUTRO ].