Cute things are popular worldwide. Japan is known as a country filled with cute fancy goods. Various kinds of anime and character items, such as Hello Kitty and Pokémon, are produced and exported to many countries. The word kawaii (a Japanese word which is a rough equivalent of cute) is becoming an international word.
However, why cute things attract us and how they affect our mind are not clear. We all know that cute things make us happy, but we know little about how they influence our behaviour.
In a recent paper published in PLoS ONE, we demonstrated that people’s attention becomes more focused after viewing cute photo images of baby animals. We also found this tendency may facilitate performance of subsequent tasks that require concentration.
We conducted three experiments with 132 university students. The participants were asked to sort seven pictures of baby animals (puppies and kittens) according to their preference within 1.5 minutes.
This short-time experience improved their performance in a fine dexterity task using tweezers (the children’s game “Operation”) and in a non-motor visual search task.
More specifically, students picked up more pieces successfully in the Operation task after they viewed images of baby animals than before they viewed the images. The number of successful trials increased from 7.5 to 10.0 (out of 14) on average.
The mean time to complete the task also increased from 136 seconds to 151 seconds. In contrast, participants who viewed images of adult animals (dogs and cats) did not show a statistically significant increase in either measure (from 7.7 to 8.3 and from 138 seconds to 139 seconds).
The result suggests that viewing cute images makes people behave more deliberately and perform tasks with greater time and care.
In the second experiment, students searched for a designated digit in a random array of 40 digits and gave the number of count as quickly and accurately as possible. The number of correct answers given within a time limit of 3 min increased from 22.8 to 26.4 after viewing baby animal images. Adult animal images were ineffective (from 23.8 to 24.0).
Together with the result of the first experiment, the data indicate that the improvement was associated with either a decrease or an increase in performance speed, depending on the nature of the task.
In the third experiment, students performed a global–local letter task; this type of task is often used for assessing the breadth of attentional focus. Each stimulus was a larger letter composed of smaller letters. Generally, humans process the global feature of a stimulus faster than its local feature.
However, the processing time difference between global and local features of the letter stimulus was reduced after viewing cute images. That means, viewing cute images makes people’s attention narrower.
These effects are interpreted as a consequence of the function of kawaii. Kawaii is a positive emotion that is associated with approach motivation and the tendency toward systematic processing. When we see a cute thing, we are motivated to get closer to it and to know its details.
This action tendency is associated with a narrower attentional focus. Apparently this tendency lasts for a while and influences subsequent task performance.
In my view, cute (kawaii) is not really an adjective that describes the attribute of an object. Rather, it is better conceptualised as an emotion that emerges from the relationship between a viewer and the object. Images of kittens and puppies are typical stimuli that induce this kind of emotion.
We do not know yet, however, whether the observed effect is specific to images of babies and infants. The present study did not distinguish between the perception of infantility and the feeling of cuteness.
It is worth studying whether viewing cute things which are not babies (such as showing a picture of an iguana to a lizard lover) has a similar effect.
The present findings indicate that viewing cute things not only makes us happier but also affects our behaviour. As a representative of Japanese pop culture, kawaii has been commercially produced in the form of characters and goods.
However, to date, little scientific explanation has been given to what kawaii is and what the advantage of being cute or being with cute things.
The present findings provide a first hint to elucidate the psychological basis of the world-wide prevalence of cute things.