Updated: Mar 2, 2021
As you may have heard, a new (awesome) study was released suggesting that viewing photos of adorable baby animals actually increases productivity. This is somewhat reassuring to a large number of office workers who spend work-time emailing cute photos to each other and frequently changing the desktop photos of their pets. (“Yeah, I was just trying to increase my productivity, that’s it.”)
In the study, university students were asked to sort through photos of baby animals, adult animals, or pleasant-looking foods. They were then required to complete various tasks requiring focused attention. Performance improved after viewing baby animals compared to the less cute photos, demonstrating more accuracy and better focus.
The research team from Japan behind the study suggest the results could be interpreted in one of two ways, using an approach motivation theory or nurturant love theory. If the first theory is correct, the “cuteness-triggered positive emotion” induced by viewing the baby animals has high approach motivation – something that makes us want to go out and achieve something – and therefore causes a narrowed attentional focus. If the second theory is correct, the photos of baby animals induce nurturant love – the feeling of love and concern for another’s well-being – that motivates caregiving behaviour which includes heightened attention.
These theories sound plausible, and I’m not a psychologist. But as a naturopathic doctor, I wonder about the physiological effect that viewing fuzzy adorable animals has on stress hormones like cortisol. We know that elevated stress hormones can impede performance on tasks that require attention. And there is research showing that humans experience a measurable reduction in blood cortisol when petting dogs.
So therefore when you click on the photo that your mother-in-law sent in the middle of the workday, maybe it’s the reduction in cortisol that improves your productivity. If that’s the case, then she is also helping improve your immune system, lowering your blood pressure, reducing cellular damage, prolonging your life and having many more health benefits that occur when cortisol levels are normalized. (aaaaawwwww!)