Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

Having Trouble Focusing? A Dose of Cuteness May Be The Answer

By Haotian Zhou, Alex Shaw


It does not take a psychologist to figure out that the sight of cute animals can boost our mood, cheering us up when there’s a dark cloud over our heads. However, it is far from obvious that seeing cuteness could have anything to do with leading a meaningful life. In fact, it could be argued that spending our time watching videos of cute things is the essence of wasting one’s time. However, a team of psychologists from Hiroshima University in Japan, a country renowned for its kawaii (i.e. cute) culture, decided to challenge this unflattering portrait of cuteness-watching behavior. In a series of experiments, lead author Hiroshi Nittono and colleagues showed that a dose of cuteness administered before you embark on your goal pursuit could be critical to accomplishing what you set out to achieve.

Previous research has shown that cute animals can activate the nurturing and caregiving response in the beholders. Nittono and colleagues hypothesized that since both nurturing and caregiving behaviors require close attention to the animal as well as its environment, beholding cuteness might help sharpen the beholders’ mental focus thereby facilitating performance on tasks that require concentration and attention to details.

Image ©: starsandspirals 2014

To test their hypothesis, Nittono and colleagues first asked 48 college students to work on a task that requires fine motor control and careful attention. Specifically, this task was designed to simulating surgical operation on miniscule manikins. After the participants had worked on this task for a while, half of participants viewed a series of pictures of cute baby animals during the recess while the other half viewed a series of pictures of not-so-cute adult animals. Once the recess was over, both groups of participants resumed working on the simulated surgery task. The researcher measured the difference in participants’ performance before and after the recess. The results showed that participants who viewed cute animal pictures during the recess significantly improved their performance after the recess; whereas participants who viewed adult animal pictures did not show any sign of performance gain. Then the researchers attempted to replicate the above finding in a second experiment using a different task. Specifically, participants were asked to play a game quite similar to Where’s Waldo, where, instead of searching for Waldo, participants were supposed to look for a target number (e.g. 3) among dozens of decoys (e.g. 5, 6, 8 etc.). Again, the results showed that looking at pictures of cute animals significantly boosted participants’ performance whereas looking at pictures of adult animals had no benefits.

The two experiments provided converging evidence for the researchers’ hypothesis that seeing cuteness improves focus on details thereby allowing people to be more successful on tasks that demand mental finesse. As the saying goes, the devil’s in the details. In our highly competitive society, one can hardly find any success without laser-sharp focus and attention to details. This research fits nicely with one general research theme here at New Path to Purpose. Specifically, the research agenda of several NPP members, such as Professor Ayelet Fishbach, are concerned with improving people’s performance through subtle and cost-effective interventions. The surprising discovery by Nittono and colleagues seems to suggest that indulging yourself in cuteness spotting once in a while might just be what you need to set yourself up to make substantial gains in your pursuit of purpose.


Haotian Zhou is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose in Goal Pursuit Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being

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