Looking at Cute Stuff on the Internet: A Modest Defense

More than a year ago, I made a tumblr for my boyfriend. It updates five to ten times a day with cute animals: mostly dogs (ahem, puppies), some kittens and rats (my weakness), and the occasional misfiled social justice post from my personal tumblr.

I’m spending hours on r/awww for research, I swear!

I will not pretend that I made this because I was trying to increase his productivity, butbutbut if I was trying to claim to be The Most Evidence Based with this gift…well, the science has something to say about that.

Six years ago, Sherman, Haidt (yes, that Haidt), and Coans did a study on infantile physical morphology (which maps onto perceived cuteness). Studies about the relationship between exposure to infantile physical morphology and fine-motor dexterity sound all stuffy and serious until you look at their research materials: namely, some pictures of baby animals and the game Operation. [Related: LOLmythesis]

To their credit, Sherman, Haidt, and Coan’s hypothesis does make sense: that when we see creatures with infant-like features, we can do fine-motor tasks better. Or to put it more simply: when we see things that look like babies, we can be more gentle with fragile stuff. For instance, babies.

To test this hypothesis, they ran two experiments.

In the first, participants (all women) were presented with cute and less cute animals. While previous research had used sketches of animals (Here, we scoff. High def fluff, please.) Sherman, Haidt, and Coan used photos of puppies and kittens (the cute condition) and adult dogs and cats (the less-cute condition).

How to determine cuteness, you ask?

You mean besides just looking at their teensy faces and floppy ears? (Yes, that’s exactly what you mean.)

A panel of 17 rated the animals on dimensions of interestingness and cuteness. In photos of puppies/dogs and kittens/cats, high-cuteness correlated with high-interestingness. More on this later. All of the participants in both cute and not-cute conditions were given a similar slideshow, beginning with pictures of house interiors, followed by cute or less-cute animals, followed by more house interiors.

Then, everyone played (solo) games of Operation. Participants in the cuter condition performed better but with a moderate effect size, but I wasn’t quite convinced. Remember the cute-interesting correlation? What if better performance—if this replicates—on Operation is because things that pique your interest cause you to be more attentive and careful? And we have a single gender group in this experiment; even assuming the hypothesis about cute causing more carefulness is correct, what if it’s only true of women?

…And there we have Experiment 2.
This time, a mixed-gender group, with both conditions equalized in terms of interestingness, excitingness, and enjoyableness. This necessitated adding in lions and tigers to the mix of adult animals, but puppies and kittens were the cuteness condition. And…again, the cuteness condition did far better on the dexterity task, though the effect did decrease slightly.

But that’s not even the end of the research! Nittono, Fukishima, Yano, and Moriya are the authors of an available, delightfully-named paper called The Power of Kawaii. Their three part research set replicates the Sherman, Haidt, and Coan Experiment 2 (finding a near-identical effect size), as well as examining the relationship between looking at baby animals and performance on a visual search task (i.e. Can you find as many X as possible in this sea of Y?) and on a global-local task. (Example here)

The results are mixed. Cute animals have a small positive effect on skill in visual searching. However, cute animals didn’t help with global tasks, potentially because they’re only improving narrow focus and carefulness. More from Nittono, et al:

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. This study does not deny the view that cuteness is related to embodied cognition and sociality motivation. Rather, this study provides further evidence that perceiving cuteness exerts immediate effects on cognition and behavior in a wider context than that related to caregiving or social interaction.

And that, friends, is why you should waste spend more time looking at cute things. Go on, improve your productivity! Your fine-motor dexterity! Your attentional focus!


Related: Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion

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