The Kawaii Effect: Cute things make us careful, focus our attention, & motivate Kama Muta

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Many of us like to look at cute images and videos on the internet – our mood improves. Instagram is purrfect for that. Turns out, going “Aww” can enhance our attention and focus, and by extension, boost our cognitive abilities too. Researchers have found that looking at images of puppies and kittens as well as other cute things can make us more careful, improve attention, and enhance fine-motor dexterity. I dub this cuteness-induced improvement in cognitive and motor performance “The Kawaii Effect” – based on the popular usage of the Japanese word “Kawaii” which approximately translates to “cute” in English.

Researchers Hiroshi Nittono, Michiko Fukushima, Akihiro Yano, and Hiroki Moriya suggest that cute images induce a positive mental state that promotes a narrower, concentrated level of attention and it helps us process local information in a more systematic way. The cuteness-triggered positive emotional state taps into our “approach motivation” – our impulse to move toward something on purpose. Approach motivation draws us closer to a task/situation with more focused attention than our default. In contrast, something repulsive like noxious smells taps into our avoidance motivation – our impulse to move away from something on purpose.

In a series of 3 experiments, researchers asked 132 participants to look at images of baby animals, adult animals, food, and neutral objects. After viewing the cutest images, they demonstrated a prominent improvement in 3 types of tasks:

  • Fine-motor dexterity: Participants played a game like “Operation” where they removed small objects from holes using tweezers to simulate a doctor-patient interaction.
  • Visual search: Participants had to search for a specific number from a matrix of 40 numbers arranged in a grid. They were asked to give as many correct answers as possible within a time limit.
  • Global-local semantic processing/Novan task: Letters like L & T were arranged in larger forms like H. Participants had to respond with the correct letter based on either the global shape (H) or it’s constituents (L or T)

Participants showed an improvement in each of these tasks after viewing cute baby animal photos. The improvement was significant after viewing adult animal photos too, but not as much as after viewing puppies and kittens. Participants also rated baby animal photos as cuter, more infantile, and more pleasant than adult animal photos and food photos.

The tasks were not repeated after days or weeks to test how lasting these effects were. So it is likely that these effects are temporary and last only till the cuteness-induced mood fades away.

Researchers believe that a 44% improvement in the fine-motor task was due to an increased duration taken to perform the task which, in turn, is likely to extend from an evolutionary tendency to be careful while caring for an infant. However, a 15% improvement in the second task reflects an increase in attentional processing speed as it has nothing to with caring for a child.

Their final experiment (the Novan task) suggests that people have a tendency to perceive the global aspects of information faster than local aspects (called global precedence). When asked to correctly identify what the local letter is or the overall-global letter shape is, participants correctly responded to the larger shape of the letters faster than they did to the local/constituent letters. After viewing cute images, the difference in the participant’s reaction times reduced. Researchers believe that cute images tend to reduce this global precedence of perception and increase the narrowed focus of attention. The global-local information system in the brain is closely linked to the construal level theory which explains multiple levels of processing information.

This study has a number of valuable implications – looking at adorable animals while working can temporarily improve work-productivity; driving breaks that include scrolling on Instagram for a dose of cuteness might promote careful driving; a cuteness-work-break might improve our ability to detect errors – proof-reading, mathematical silly mistakes, coding errors, debugging, etc. But, a cuteness overload may not be a good idea if your job demands a bird’s eye view type of global attention.

Cuteness-enhanced cognition (The Kawaii Effect) might just be a powerful cognitive strategy to improve performance in a wide range of professional skills like coding, writing, arithmetic, engineering, story-boarding, etc. This particular finding also aligns with the reasons why fun and engagement while learning improves the quality of learning.

Scrolling social media for adorable, cuddly, floofy photos is an aspect of positive social media behavior that improves overall well-being (as opposed to negative behavior like ranting and obsessing over others’ projected happiness).

So many of us engage in procrastination while working and scroll through Instagram or 9gag to watch adorbs, jaw-clenching awwwwieeeewwwieiiee things such as cats. We do this to rectify the negative mood caused by the activity we want to procrastinate. However, for most of us, there is some post-procrastination guilt. This guilt occurs while viewing cats (or other content). Now, research suggests that viewing cats (or other content) can generate happiness which reduces that guilt and converts it into enjoyment. Couple the Kawaii Effect with this and active procrastination (which promotes creative thinking to an extent) and you might temporarily become attentive, creative, and careful because of cat-cuteness work-breaks.

Enhanced mental abilities & feeling good at the same time is quite a desirable state. Lucky for us, this is not a stand-alone finding and other lines of research corroborate the Kawaii effect to some extent. For example, in one exploratory pilot study, researchers tested if an adorable element attracts attention while interacting with security dialog messages that appear on the internet (often before visiting a website, opening a malicious file, or logging in). They found that people pay longer attention when Kawaii animations are present in security messages. Additionally, combining a puppy animation with audio made participants less likely to habitually dismiss such notifications.

In the strictest sense, the Kawaii Effect occurs when attention and fine-motor performance improves temporarily after viewing something cute & adorable.


What is cute? And how is it related to attention & motivation?

We’ve heard people say this – “OMG it’s so cute I’m melting” and “Awwwwwwwwwiiieeeee”

The psychology of cuteness often refers to the baby-schema or the Kindchenschema (German) which is a mental template of a baby. We tend to find things cute when they connect with our baby-schema. The connections form through visual features like a big head, round eyes, lower mouth, round face and abstract aspects like innocence, helplessness, and small (or big).

The baby-schema motivates an approach and caring behavior – such as the attentional preparedness in mothers. Focused attention is necessary for providing care and protecting a baby, so is finger dexterity for soft handling and care. All of this may be (in evolutionary story-telling terms) to increase an offspring’s survival. Hiroshi Nittono’s finding that cute stimuli promote focused attention and careful behavior directly builds on an earlier finding showcasing how cute images promote fine-motor movement.

Research suggests that a common neural/cognitive mechanism codes & interprets cuteness in both human and animal faces. The Kindchenschema/baby-schema may be universal. Based on research on women who have never given birth (for any reason), there is increased activity in a brain region called the Nucleus Accumbens which is closely associated with pleasure, happiness, gratification, and reward. This activation may be a generalized activation that applies to many different positive contexts such as romance & food. One explanation for this is that cute things are rewarding. But another complicated explanation is that a sense of reward/pleasure is a separate dimension of cute and a sense of pleasure is a necessary condition for something to be cute along with the baby-schema abstraction.

Author Ralf Buckley argues to give the word “Aww” the official status of representing the emotion we feel when we experience cuteness. After all, it is one of the most common verbal responses which people reliably acknowledge as a label for the experience of cute.

Kawaii/cuteness has evolved at the cultural level to include virtually anything like food, buildings, behavior, art, and romance. At some level, baby-ness may decouple with obvious cuteness and recombine with other ideas, possibly in situations where the Japanese would use a word like Kimokawaii meaning cute and gross at the same time. We even anthropomorphize (ascribe human qualities to) inanimate objects to make them cuter.


One might wonder – Isn’t cuteness subjective? So shouldn’t people differ in how their attention changes? Shouldn’t approach motivation be different for different people?

Researchers addressed this question and found that individual differences in how people respond to emotional photos do affect how narrow attention becomes. Narrowing of attention is seen as a part of reduced “cognitive scope” where cognitive scope refers to the vastness of outward attention and availability of internal mental information. Approach motivation is related to what researchers call pre-motor preparedness where a particular type of brainwave activity is suppressed (beta suppression) to facilitate neurons that govern muscle movement (for approach). Researchers observed that there was a stronger relationship between higher beta-suppression to positive approach-motivated photos (appetizing food) and focused attention than those who looked at neutral photos or positive photos with wider attention. Their research suggests that approach-motivation for positive images is linked to narrowed attention (narrowing of cognitive scope).

Cute things and appetizing food aren’t the only things that narrow and focus attention. Just like cuteness (a positive state), anger (a negative state) also narrows focus – at a conceptual and perceptual level.* This may be because both are approach-motivated states where cuteness creates a positive approach and anger creates a negative approach toward something. It may be the intensity of approach motivation that explains the cognitive enhancement created by cute stimuli.

*That means anger can limit your scope of understanding at the level of details you notice and the level of how you make comprehend a situation.

The relationship between cute things and approach-motivation is further demonstrated by a study where researchers found that people are more likely to respond to a survey in the presence of something cute. In a field experiment, researchers set up an interview desk and asked people to voluntarily self-administer a survey. For a set of people, they placed a photo of a cute, smiling 1-year-old baby boy and measured the survey response-rate for an organ donation survey. For another set of people, one of the 2 interviewers held a 7-month-old Yorki puppy and measured the response rate for a nutritional label survey. When they compared the survey response rates with respective control groups (no baby or puppy), the baby boy had generated an increase of 88% and the puppy had generated an increase of 42%. (These numbers cannot be generalized because the study lacked strict experimental controls and variability.)

In one exploratory pilot study, researchers tested if an adorable element (illustrated puppy) attracts more attention while interacting with security dialog messages that appear on the internet (often before visiting a website or opening a malicious file). They found that people pay longer attention when Kawaii animations are present in security messages. Additionally, combining a puppy animation with audio made participants less likely to habitually dismiss such notifications.

Cuteness/Kawaii may engage our approach-motivation because of an abstract baby-schema linked to caring and that facilitates deliberate narrow attention.


Cuteness as communal sharing and Kama Muta

Kamilla Knutsen Steinnes and colleagues propose a new perspective that puts cuteness and approach motivation in an inter-personal & intra-personal context. They introduce an idea called Kama Muta (Sanskrit for being moved by love) in which feelings of communal sharing are suddenly increased in response to something cute. It is the quick intense warm fuzzy feeling we experience when we see something that melts our hearts. While there is no consensus on what emotion cute things evoke or if cuteness is only a subset of a larger emotion, communal sharing explains some aspects of cuteness. Communal sharing is a positive meta-emotion that involves kindness, proximity, closeness, trust, unity, and a powerful approach-force to seek those out with something or someone.

  • Cats showing Kama Muta
  • Cats looking at you to induce the Kawaii effect

When people view a cute baby or chonky little puppies or fluffy cats, they experience a sudden increase in wanting to approach, touch, cuddle, and share the experience of the cute thing. In that case, a communal sharing relationship takes place between the person and the cute things. Similarly, a person can observe cuteness in others and want to share that cuteness with someone else as their heart goes out to the cute thing. People experience Kama Muta when they see cuddling animals, couples acting sweet, or even unlikely animal friends. It’s also a moment when an observer instantly tries to connect with a close person or animal in response to observing something cute. For example, holding someone’s hand, snapchatting, talking about it, etc. Strong indicators of Kama Muta are feelings of warmth in the chest, positive tears, and goosebumps or chills with a want of getting close to the object of cuteness.

Across 2 studies, they show that watching videos of cute things and watching videos of cute things interacting with other cute things increases Kama Muta – more than the baseline Kama Muta for neutral and not-so-cute things. They also found that highly empathic people who show concern are more sensitive to Kama Muta and evaluate cute things to be cuter.

On a slightly unrelated note: We have an inherent tendency to connect with life-forms and nature – this may be a tiny underlying force that draws us closer to floofs and borks.

The science of cuteness is far from presenting a complete picture but the Kama Muta and the Kawaii Effect bring us closer to a social, cultural, behavioral, cognitive, and evolutionary context for cute, endearing experiences.


Because language is inadequate in expressing cuteness, people have created compound words like “Cute Attack“- like a panic attack but due to cuteness overload – A sensational response incited by the witnessing of something cute, precious, fuzzy, or otherwise snuggly. Symptoms include chills traveling up the spine and through the fingertips, impulsive smiling and jerking of the limbs. Severe cases of cute attacks can cause high-pitched squeals and temporary spasms of the entire nervous system, forcing its victim to crumble helplessly to the ground.

One quirk of looking at cute things is cute-aggression – the intense feeling of squeezing, biting, or punching something overwhelmingly cute. Researchers call such paradoxical emotions dimorphic expressions where intense positive emotions have some aspects which are typical of negative emotions. Tears of joy, for example. Cute aggression is possibly a combination of the Kama Muta and aggressive expressions like clenched jaws, tightened muscles, and robust fists. It may be a self-regulating mechanism to process the sudden positive overwhelm.

Next time you are looking at adorable things, remember your brain might be in overdrive!


Summary

  • Cuteness may promote an approach-motivated narrow attentional focus and careful behavior that partly stems from our preparedness to care for children – The Kawaii Effect.
  • Researchers have found that looking at images of puppies and kittens as well as other cute things can temporarily make us more careful, improve attention, and enhance fine-motor dexterity. Cuteness is seen as an approach-motivated aspect of Kama Muta (being moved by love).


P.S. It’s easy to think of not cute after this overload. You might find this interesting.

P.P.S. Cat photos by Pournima Gaikwad.

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