According To Study: Do Cute Cats Actually Increase Productivity?

Hi! You may know me from my series of possibly misguided overanalyses of Australia's Number One singles. Oddly enough, I'm also a lecturer in psychology. And just as people seem to want to know what's going on under the bonnet in the latest number one single, I reckon plenty of you also want to know more about what these weird studies are about and how much we should trust them, especially as the Australian media is often pretty bad at reporting science. The words 'according to a study' can be used to justify any old garbage, and the average reader has seen enough bullshit 'studies' reported in the media to be suspicious about them all. So this is a new series for TheVine.


Last year, TheVine's sister site Daily Life had a cute article about cats. Apparently, according to the title of the article, 'Cute Cats Increase Productivity'. The article had some brief psychology mumbo-jumbo that nobody really paid attention to, and then - most importantly! - there were some pictures of cute cats. Over a thousand people recommended the article to their friends on Facebook. "Hey, boss! This article says looking at cute kittens helps me work!" said several thousand office workers when confronted by their boss for slacking off. Research findings like this are good fodder for sites like us (and dozens of other sites). They're compact, digestible, kind of funny, and, well, it's literally an excuse to look at cute cats while at work. But the question I'm interested in is: is it worth taking seriously? Do cute cats actually increase productivity?

Economists often get very excited over the idea of increasing productivity, which is economics-speak for getting workers to make more stuff in the same amount of time. Economists reckon that productivity is something that increases real wealth (as opposed to the more-or-less imaginary money that Wall Street banks create) both for employers and for the country as a whole. A more productive country is a wealthier country, which is why Australia has a Productivity Commission and why unions consent to workers getting raises based on productivity gains.

Sometimes employers take the idea of increasing productivity to uncomfortable extents; take this recent article in the Australian Financial Review describing how workers on a Western Australian natural gas project are forbidden to sit down whilst working, and forbidden to take longer than 10 minutes for a smoko break. All because it reduces productivity. On the other hand, other employers (and most organisational psychologists) reckon that a happier workforce is a more productive one; if you make life painful for workers by doing things like timing smoko breaks down to the second, you're probably going to get a bunch of workers not giving a shit about your precious natural gas. This debate about how best to improve productivity is the subtext of all these articles about cats increasing productivity. "Let your employees look at their cats, employers!" these articles are saying. "It helps them work!" 

However, the actual academic study that the news articles refer to, done by Hiroshi Nittono and colleagues at Hiroshima University, says nothing about productivity. The Hiroshima University academics don't give a shit whether you're productive. It is not the focus of their paper. The only time they even mention 'office work' is in the final sentence of the final paragraph, where they say their findings may be beneficial for office workers. But they don't justify this, and they don't explain exactly why and how it will be beneficial for office workers. People often see the final paragraph of an academic journal article about a study as being the final definitive conclusion of the paper. One of these people clearly wrote the press release about the paper that journos have been reading. But these academics saying that their findings may be beneficial for office work is actually more like an afterthought. They think their research is interesting as it is. The bit about office work at the end of the paper is the researchers saying "oh, I suppose I should say something about how this stuff could be useful", rather than "hey everyone, this is why we did the study!". They certainly didn't look at anything directly relevant to office work in their actual studies.

So what is the paper actually about, if not increasing productivity? Mostly, what Nittono and colleagues were looking at was the effect that being primed with a baby schema had on performance. Now, there's two bits in that previous sentence that might be confusing if you're not a cognitive psychologist: 'primed', and 'baby schema'. So let me explain them. A lot of research by psychologists shows that our behaviour is subtly influenced by stuff around us without us realising it. We're not talking subliminal messages that turn you into zombies here: it's more like little changes that make us slightly more likely to do this rather than that. This is priming. Stuff out there in the world primes us to be ready to act in a certain way. One of the more famous examples of research showing this kind of priming is with women and maths. Basically, if you draw a girl's attention to the fact she is female, she does worse at maths tests compared to if you never mention gender. This is not because women are dumb or bad at maths - it's because, like men, they're easily primed. Being worse at maths is part of your script of being female, even if you consciously think the whole idea is rubbish and that women are awesome at everything. And we humans very often follow such scripts without realising it. So, when girls are sitting at a desk doing a maths test after being reminded they're female, they're probably slightly more likely to give up on answering a question earlier, and so don't do quite as well. There's thousands of these kinds of unconscious primes, in all walks of life, that make us a little more likely to do this rather than that.

And Nittono and colleagues are arguing that cute cats (and dogs) act as one of these primes. In particular, cute cats activate the 'baby schema', which primes us to act in friendly, caring ways. Nittono and colleagues have a particular definition of cute. For them, Maru is not cute. But Grumpy Cat is! I mean, the amazing thing about Tardar Sauce is that the grumpy doesn't stop her from being cute. Now, before you rush to the defense of Maru, Nittono & co argue that cute (or the Japanese word kawaii, to be more precise) specifically means something like 'aww, I want to look after it!' It's got to do with having a big head and having big eyes. Like babies. Grumpy Cat's big sad eyes are, I think, because it's still a kitten (it was about 9 months old when it first got internet-famous). Maru is an adult cat who isn't quite as cute in this sense (though he's definitely a handsome cat). Maru's awesomeness is really more related to his fearless investigation of boxes.

It seems like we could possibly be genetically hard wired to melt at the sight of some small soft mammal with big eyes and a big head. When we look at the world around us, there are some things that we want to detect as soon as possible, and other things that can wait. And cute baby faces are one of these things that our brains detect ASAP. Like this:

Or this:

And it's not surprising that we have an inner script for dealing with babies. We have to treat babies differently to other humans. They're fragile and delicate, both in body and in mind. They need looking after. And so researchers have argued that there is a 'baby schema', which we all have, which triggers behaviour that's a little more delicate and caring and friendly. If we are reminded of babies in some way, it activates our 'baby schemas'. It primes us to be delicate and caring and friendly. Nittono and colleagues thought they might be able to set off the baby schema in uni students by showing them kittens and puppies, because kittens and puppies have the same big eyes and big heads.

Do you remember the kids' board game Operation, where you had to use tweezers to remove 'organs' from a man's body? Basically, participants played two games of operation. In between the two games, they had to rate pictures of cats and dogs. Some participants only saw cute pictures of kittens and puppies. Others saw equally pleasant but-not-quite-as-cute pictures of adult dogs and cats.

What Nittono found in this experiment was that people who'd just looked at kittens and puppies instead of cats and dogs were (on average) a fair bit more careful when playing the Operation game. They took longer with the tweezers and made fewer mistakes. The argument that the researchers are making is that the participants had just been 'primed' to be delicate, to be more careful, because they'd just looked at kittens. I mean, if you step on a cat accidentally, it'll probably hiss at you and scratch you in self-defense. If you stepped on a kitten accidentally, you may well crush its delicate bones SADFACE. Being exposed to kittens make us careful about other things, say our cute Japanese researchers. But looking at adult cats doesn't make us more careful.

So what might this say about productivity? Nittono and co don't say. But assuming the results are accurate, we can apply them. How important is it for you to be gentle and careful where you work? Gordon Ramsay or Simon Cowell clearly shouldn't look at kittens before showing up at work to shout at people! But maybe if you work with the elderly, where you have to be gentle and careful, or if it's vitally important that you find that missing comma in an Excel spreadsheet or piece of writing, then maybe looking at kittens won't hurt you. Doesn't have to be kittens. Anything that's small and cute will do. Puppies. Ducklings. Baby elephants.

The thing is, these priming effects are often small. I mean, in the Operation game in the study, participants who hadn't looked at kittens and puppies got about 8 of the 14 pieces out of the Operation man without making the buzzer go off, on average. After looking at kittens and puppies, they successfully got 10 out of 14 pieces out, on average. This is a real improvement, but it's not a dramatic improvement; looking at kittens makes you a bit more gentle and careful, probably, but it doesn't turn you into a different person.

More research needs to be done before you can seriously argue to your boss that you should start your work day with kittens and puppies. After all, the research was done on cute-mad Japanese university students (they didn't find much difference between males and females). It may be that we Westerners aren't quite as influenced by cuteness. It may be that university students have unusual responses to kittens compared to everyone else. The research by nature averaged everyone's responses without looking closer at the differences between people, and your response might well be different from the average (maybe you're some unusually macho bloke who's not that fussed by cute things?).

The funny thing about priming research is that often, participants can be influenced - primed - by things that the experimenter hasn't intended to have an effect. Maybe the researchers couldn't help but make "awwww" faces while they presented the cute cats (the research doesn't say one way or the other whether they tried to deal with this) or maybe they acted differently when measuring the participants' prowess with the tweezers. I mean, this probably isn't an issue. But it's why scientists always say "future research is needed" - to make sure these aren't issues. Still, you could probably argue to your boss that looking at cute things like Grumpy Cat is reasonably likely to help you be more careful. However, you basically have no excuse if your boss catches you looking at Maru.

All images via Shutterstock

profile of TimByron