It is a truth universally acknowledged that blog posts mentioning cute kittens will go on to attract more readers than all the others put together (although I remain pleasantly surprised with the 4 people a day who read about matching deprivation to postcode). Everybody has been excited about the Nittono and colleagues’ paper “The power of kawaii: viewing cute images promotes a careful behavior and narrows attentional focus“, published last September in PLoS One, no less. I guess those editors know when they’re onto a good thing too. And although I’ve seen some good – and many bad – opening sentences in scientific papers in my time, this one beats them all:
Cute things are popular worldwide.
No reference? Well, maybe this should be called Nittono’s axiom. When I finally got around to reading the paper itself rather than the silly newspaper digests, I was generally rather pleased with their analysis. Anything perceptual and cognitive is a minefield so they have done a good job of negotiating the various problems and not reading too much into the results. They recruited Japanese university students aged 18-22 (not the most representative group) and got them to do one of three tasks after looking at pictures of either “baby animals”, “adult animals” or control images (“pleasant foods” in one task, “neutral objects” in another – whether you find a blob of aka miso cute is up to you).
Task one was a Japanese version of Operation – the game where you have to remove the objects from the patient with tweezers without setting off the alarm. The baby animal group did better at that, maybe because they were primed to care more about the anthropomorphic game, or maybe because they were being more attentive and careful generally or maybe because they were just going slower. Tasks two and three sought to tease these apart, and were not nearly as much fun. Spotting letters in a matrix flashed on a computer screen? I do that for a living. But these tasks provide evidence for an effect that is wider than either the slow or the anthropomorphic explanations allow.
The only grumble I have with the paper is that the graphs show scores on the various tasks while the text refers to % relative improvements. Hmph! And the graphs show standard errors which most readers will probably interpret as confidence intervals (if not in fact as overlap intervals). But these are minor points compared to the distinct lack of cute images in the paper. Surely we could have had a Nigel Holmes-esque graph with puppies jumping over the bars? OK, maybe that’s not such a hot idea.
They conclude with what seems to be a suggestion that if we had more cute images of puppies and kittens around us, we would be more careful and safe people. I’m not sure that translates out of Japan particularly, but I’m willing to have a go with Hello Kitty stickers on my power tools.
I too have felt the draw of kittenology recently. Mrs Grant pointed out that all my clinical research was pretty depressing stuff: incontinence, dementia, domestic violence… so my colleague Gill Mein and I are doing our own pet-related research now. Our success will be measured against the high-water mark of The Power of Kawaii.