Happy Father's Day, everyone!

I spent a lot of time today thinking back to why I started blogging in the first place, while I was at my parents house doing the other-than-science things that I love to do: playing with the dog, cooking, gardening. I realized that I've not done enough of that stuff lately.

I've only been seriously doing the blog thing (in the current format) since January, and I've now been here at Scienceblogs around two months, so it was time to reflect. The transition from Wordpress obscurity to Scienceblogs prominence happened relatively quickly for me, and I think it's a good idea to look back. Why did I start blogging in the first place? In no particular order: First, to amuse myself. Second, as a means of outreach and professional development. Third, to get a lot more practice writing about science in a clear and accessible manner. They teach you in grad school to write for the academic or scientific audience, but not for the public. And I want to eventually write books. So after spending today getting back to the real-life non-science non-bloggie things that I enjoy, I'm going to get back to some of the science-bloggie things that I enjoy. Like blogging on Mondays about pets. So here we go. And in honor of father's day, we're going to talk about nurturance.


Figure 1: Cute?

ResearchBlogging.orgHuman infantile cuteness - large, rounded forehead, big eyes, small chin - these are the kinds of things that make people totally fawn over human babies. (Aside: when these juvenile features persist into adulthood, in any species, it is called neoteny.) When an individual possesses these features, we call it "cute," and we respond to that cuteness with a variety of behavioral responses. We engage in baby talk (or "motherese"), which is characterized by an increase in the voice's pitch. We make eye-contact with the baby. We get protective. We're lenient. Lots of research suggests that these behavioral responses indeed predictably occur. The interpretation is that the affective (i.e. emotional) response to those physical features promotes the care of infants, who are otherwise helpless. But what is the mechanism by which cuteness enhances the adult's drive to care for the baby? One possibility is that cuteness serves to strengthen the attachment relationship between infant and caregiver, and as a result, the caregiver has an increased desire to, well, care. But the cuteness may engender the "cuteness response" that facilitates caregiving itself. That these two hypotheses are different may not be obvious: the stimulus (input) and behavioral response (output) are the same, but the mechanism is different. The first option operates by strengthening emotional attachment between two individuals, and the result of that emotional attachment is nurturance. The second hypothesis is a more direct mechanism - that human adults are "wired" (though i really really hate using that term, because it oversimplifies the issue) to care for the infant upon seeing those physical features.

Several researchers at the University of Virginia reasoned that since caring for a small helpless child requires one to behave very carefully, infant cuteness might increase behavioral carefulness, and they ran two experiments to investigate this issue.

They started from the assumption that increased carefulness is more critical for fine-motor movements (like when trying to get a toy with The Claw) than for gross-motor movements (like climbing a tree). So they operationalized behavioral carefulness by using a fine-motor dexterity task. Typical standardized laboratory tasks measure manual dexterity based on the number of objects moved per second. But cuteness may not increase speed of fine-motor activity, only accuracy independent of time. The best brain surgeons in the world may not be speedy, but you better hope they're highly accurate. Right? So the researchers had to develop their own measure of manual fine-motor accuracy to measure accuracy as independent from speed.

Figure 2: You think I'm joking.

That's right. They had their experiment participants play the game Operation. And you thought all those hours spent trying to get the funny bone out of the dude's arm without making his nose light up were wasted. Not only did they measure overall accuracy in removing the little plastic bones, but they also modified the tweezers so measure how strongly the participant was squeezing them, as a measure of physical gentleness.

But how did they invoke the cuteness response? Pictures of baby puppies and (evil) kitties! (I know, you were starting to wonder how this qualifies as monday pets). So before they played the game, they were shown a slideshow of photographs of real animals. Some of them were young (and therefore, "cute") and some were mature (and therefore, un-cute).

Figure 3: Cute, right? I thought so.

The first experiment was broken into three portions, and all the participants were college-aged women. First, the participant played Operation, and had one chance to remove each of the twelve body parts. The total number of body parts successfully removed was recorded, as well as grip strength from the modified tweezers. Then, they viewed a slideshow with three sections. The first and third sections contained photos of houses and were identical between conditions. The second section contained images of animals: puppies and kittens for the high cuteness condition, and adult dogs and cats for the low cuteness condition. All photos were previously rated for cuteness by different people in a pilot study. Additionally, while the participants were viewing the slideshow and playing Operation, heart rate and skin conductance, both measures of arousal, were measured. After the slideshow, they played Operation again.

So how did they do? Viewing pictures of the cute animals increased performance on the Operation game (when compared with baseline performance, prior to viewing the animals), though there were no changes in grip strength. Heart rate was higher during the viewing of animal pictures in the high cuteness condition, but there was no effect on skin conductance. Furthermore, the individuals in the high cuteness condition reported more intense subjective experiences of happiness, calmness, tenderness, amusement, and entertainment. Additional analyses indicated that these effects were truly due to cuteness, and not general interestingness of the photos.

Figure 4: They didn't include graphs, only tables. Sigh. But I graphed it for you. The bars indicate mean difference between experimental phase and baseline phase. The difference for Operation and heartrate were significant, but not for grip strength or skin conductance. It looks like there's no data for heart rate for the low cuteness group, but that's because the difference was only .02.

The second experiment was essentially identical to the first, but new animal photos were used that were better equated on things like interestingness, to further indicate that the effects from experiment one were due to cuteness and not due to something correlated with cuteness (like general interest). Additionally, the second experiment included both men and women, to find out if the effects of cuteness on carefulness was specific to women. Aside from these changes, the experimental design was identical.

First, a set of analyses indicated that the two sets of photos (high- and low-cuteness) were much better matched for interest and subject emotional intensity than in the first experiment. The general findings were replicated: viewing the cute animals increased performance on the Operation game, but not grip strength. In this experiment, neither heart rate nor skin conductance showed significant changes between conditions. This suggests that the increased performance on the Operation task was not due to general physiological arousal, but due to the increased cuteness of the stimuli. There were no significant differences due to gender.

Figure 5: Again, bars indicate mean difference between experimental and baseline phases. Significant effect for Operation, but not for grip strength, heart rate, or skin conductance.

Taken together, this study indicates that viewing images of baby puppies and (evil) kitties increased performance on the Operation game, a task which demands highly precise fine-motor movements. The researchers argue:

This behavioral shift toward increased carefulness makes sense as an adaptation for caring for small children, and is consistent with the view that cuteness is a releaser of the human caregiving system.
What this means is that cuteness doesn't just cause us to care for cute babies or animals in a general sense, but has specific effects on behavioral carefulness.

I think this study is really interesting. It fits nicely within the embodied cognition literature - that affective states, or the way we feel and think, are limited and expressed by the body. The nurturing behavior that is elicited by cute babies and animals directly makes us more physically careful, such as in motor behavior. Also, recall that as a result of the domestication of silver foxes some of the morphological changes observed included changes in skull shape and size, favoring larger foreheads. Domesticated foxes, compared to controls, had floppy ears, curly tails, and so forth. These are all features associated with "cuteness" in animals. Indeed, it has often been observed that domesticated animals are neotenous, retaining many of their juvenile features into adulthood. For animals which are relatively helpless and dependent on human caregivers (as domesticated animals, such as dogs, tend to be), it make sense that neoteny would have emerged through the course of natural or artificial solution so that human caregivers would feel compelled to care for them. I wouldn't hazard a guess (at this point) in terms of the direction of causality, but that there is a relationship in the first place seems reasonable.

According to the researchers, this was the first study that attempted to ascertain the relationship between cuteness and carefulness, so that should be kept in mind. But I'm just not convinced that the game Operation is really the proper measurement for fine-motor precision. Those who played the game as children might have felt certain emotions related to nostalgia, excitement, nervousness, or joy, which might confound the results. To be fair, the results are convincing, but I might be more satisfied with a less culturally-bound measurement of fine-motor precision. Still, though, pretty cool study. Must have been fun for the participants and the grad students who ran the experiments. And science should be fun. Right?

Sherman, G., Haidt, J., & Coan, J. (2009). Viewing cute images increases behavioral carefulness. Emotion, 9 (2), 282-286. DOI: 10.1037/a0014904