My son Brais as a newborn. So freaking cute! Photo credit: Jenifer Samaha.

In my first year of high school, I brought small plastic toys to school during tests. You know… for luck. I would set up the figurines in a row on my desk, facing me, and then get busy with answering exam questions. My collection raised eyebrows in a couple of teachers (probably like yours are now raised)—but there were no real complaints. So I formed a habit and brought the toys throughout the school year. I usually got good grades, though I never really truly thought that the toys had anything to do with it… except for maybe providing me with a mental safety blanket during a stressful time. That is, until now.

A recent research study by Hiroshi Nittono and his colleagues at Hiroshima University in Japan suggests that I may have underestimated the power of my knick-knacks.

Nittono’s team wondered if viewing cute things affected behavior in a measurable way. “Cute” objects are thought to possess infantile characteristics, such as those that are common to human babies and young animals: big eyes, a large head relative to body size, and a prominent forehead are some examples. Cute images are popular across the world, but especially so in Japan, where even the adult culture admires childishness as a quality in social contexts. This appreciation drives the mass production of Pokémon and Hello Kitty toys and manga comic books, among many other products. The objects are often described as Kawaii (a Japanese adjective that translates to English as “cute”).

Previous research has found that cuteness captures attention and elicits positive feelings in viewers. It can also induce caregiving behavior, which makes sense in an evolutionary that’s-why-we-don’t-eat-our-annoying-children type of way. But it was not known whether cuteness might also influence aspects of behavior and performance that are not related to nurturing babies. Nittono and his collaborators decided to find out.

First they asked observers to view pictures of baby and adult animals, before playing a game similar to “Operation”, in which each player uses tweezers to remove plastic body parts from the body of a patient depicted on the game board. The subjects rated the images for their cuteness, infantility, pleasantness and excitement. Photos of baby animals generated higher ratings in cuteness and infantility than did those of adult animals, although both sets of images were deemed equally pleasant and exciting. (This means that it was a good set of photos because the only real differences between them were in the cuteness and infantility dimensions). Subjects made fewer mistakes after viewing the baby animal pictures than after viewing the adult animal pictures, but they also took longer to complete the task. As if cuter images induce more deliberate and more careful behavior: perhaps participants saw the “Operation” task as a form of caregiving.

If that was the case, the scientists hadn’t really tested whether cute images improve performance outside of caregiving, so they devised a different task that was impossible to misconstrue as nurturing behavior: observers had a maximum of three minutes to find all occurrences of a specific digit within a large matrix of numbers, after viewing the images of baby and adult animals. In a twist, the researchers also added in pictures of delicious foods. Though the food images were not cute, they were rated as even more pleasant than the baby or adult animal images, which gave the researchers a way to determine if pleasantness itself was the driving force behind the performance effects. Again, the subjects’ performance improved after seeing the cuter baby animals than after seeing the less cute adult animals. Viewing the pleasant foods did not enhance performance, suggesting that the effects were not due to general pleasantness. This experiment also controlled for speed of action—recall that cute pictures made observers slow down and make more deliberate actions during the Operations game. Now, successful task execution was related directly to performance speed. So the results indicated that cute images do not improve performance merely by slowing down the observers’ actions. Instead, cute images may help to focus attention, thereby reducing distraction by non-target digits in the matrix.

To test the focalized attention hypothesis, the scientists came up with a task that pitted local—small-scale—versus global—large-scale—stimulus features, which the subjects conducted after seeing pictures of baby animals, adult animals, and neutral objects. The idea was that if the subjects were biased to local features, it would indicate a narrower attentional focus. To test this, the researchers showed observers arrays of different letters —some of which were either “Ts” or “Hs” (these constituted the local features). The arrays themselves were in the shape of Ts and Hs (global features). Each subject’s task was to determine if a T or H was present at the local level in each array, as quickly and accurately as possible. The letter-shape of the global array interferes with the search task in this kind of test (a phenomenon known as the “global precedence effect”), and this remained true after viewing pictures of adult animals and neutral objects. But there was no longer a bias for global features after viewing the baby animal photos, suggesting that exposure to cute stimuli narrows the attentional focus (thereby facilitating the search for local targets).

The scientists concluded that cuteness not only make us happier, it also improves our performance when we need to be careful (such as when taking a school test, I imagine), by narrowing our attention and eliminating distractions. The authors go so far as to suggest that we may want to surround ourselves with cuteness when we need to act carefully, for instance while “driving and [doing] office work”.

Which makes me wonder. I eventually stopped bringing my toys to tests, but one thing I’ve noticed is that I became more efficient and productive at work after my children were born. I’ve heard many other parents say the same thing. I used to think that the increase in productivity had to do with the necessity of reducing hours at work (due to less flexibility in a parent’s schedule). But perhaps the cute baby pictures on my desk deserve some credit too.