Productivity Slumping? You Probably Need a Cute Overload!

Imagine this hypothetical exchange, between a worker — named Chris, let’s say — and his or her boss:

Boss: “Chris, I asked you to meet with me today because I’m concerned about your productivity.”

Chris: “I know, and I’m sorry. There’s been a lot going on, and I’ve been distracted. I’m probably not operating at 100%.”

Boss: “Well, it’s beginning to affect your team and your deadlines.”

Chris: “I realize that; I’m really going to try to be better.”

Boss: “Chris, the bottom line is, I think we need to be a little more proactive and transparent about this, and look for how we might leverage some best practice low-hanging fruit to empower you to address this. You know, a sea change of a paradigm shift.”

Chris: “…I don’t know what you just said there, but yes, I’m on board.”

Boss: “Chris, the hard truth is that, I’m going to need you to spend more time looking at pictures of adorable kittens and puppies on the internet.”

Seems plausible, right? It actually reflects the findings of a recent study done by researchers at Hiroshima University. They showed 48 university students pictures of squee-worthy baby animals before asking them to play a Japanese children’s game that sounds analogous to Hasbro’s Operation. If you’ve ever played Operation, you know it’s a high-concentration task that requires focus and accuracy. In a big win for Boo the Pomeranian, the study participants were able to perform these tasks faster or more accurately than those who looked at other pictures of adult animals or delicious-looking food beforehand. The results of their findings are summarized in this graph:

Figure from: Nittono H, Fukushima M, Yano A, Moriya H (2012) The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus. PLoS ONE 7(9): e46362. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046362

Why is this? It seems the primary theory is that the innate vulnerability of a baby animal made the subjects more attuned to being careful. “The perception of something as cute activates the idea of something delicate and breakable…valuable and worth caring for,” said Gary Sherman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and an author on some of the earlier research. And, good news, this doesn’t appear to only be beneficial if you want to successfully play Operation! The study out of Hiroshima found that this effect helped people perform more effectively for other generalized tasks that required a greater level of detail, not just those requiring fine motor skills. This means it could have value for high-detail office work like software development, copyediting or accounting, or safety applications like driving or operating machinery.

So, if you’re looking to boost your productivity at work, you’re probably going to want to immediately bookmark as many cute animal picture sites as you can, and visit them frequently. Maybe get a few posters of sleeping kittens for your work area. Oh, and load up that adorable puppy screensaver STAT. As we saw with Chris at the beginning of this post, your job might just depend on it.


  1. ResearchBlogging.orgNittono H, Fukushima M, Yano A, & Moriya H (2012). The power of kawaii: viewing cute images promotes a careful behavior and narrows attentional focus. PloS one, 7 (9) PMID: 23050022
  2. Aww… Looking at cute pictures could make you better at work.” Martha C. White. September 28, 2012.
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Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.

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