Thursday, December 17, 2009

Kittens in the Operating Room

Facing a difficult surgery to remove that pesky medial sphenoid wing meningioma? Be sure your neurosurgeon looks at pictures of cute kittens and puppies before scrubbing up. Or so implies a goofy study by Sherman et al. (2009):
Infantile physical morphology—marked by its “cuteness”—is thought to be a potent elicitor of caregiving, yet little is known about how cuteness may shape immediate behavior. To examine the function of cuteness and its role in caregiving, the authors tested whether perceiving cuteness can enhance behavioral carefulness, which would facilitate caring for a small, delicate child. In 2 experiments, viewing very cute images (puppies and kittens)—as opposed to slightly cute images (dogs and cats)—led to superior performance on a subsequent fine-motor dexterity task (the children’s game “Operation”). This suggests that the human sensitivity to those possessing cute features may be an adaptation that facilitates caring for delicate human young. [NOTE: and perhaps surgical patients.]

"Operation"? But why?
Standard laboratory dexterity tasks score performance as the number of objects successfully moved per second. Because cuteness may not make people faster (only more careful), we used a similar task that was not time dependent: the classic children’s game “Operation” (Hasbro, Pawtucket, RI), in which participants use tweezers to remove small objects (body parts) from confined spaces. This task is similar to standard fine-motor dexterity tasks, but performance can be quantified without reference to speed. Because positive actions directed toward a child likely require physical gentleness, we also used a grip-strength gauge as a measure of physical weakness/gentleness.
In Experiment 1, participants were 40 female freshman at the University of Virginia who were assigned to one of two groups. The experiment involved playing Operation before and after looking at images of high cuteness (puppies and kittens) or low cuteness (dogs and cats). And as the authors predicted, subjects in the high cuteness condition showed greater improvement after viewing the pictures than did those in the low cuteness condition (p=.05).

Experiment 2 did a better job of balancing the images on factors that were ignored in Exp. 1, such as interesting, enjoyable, and exciting. Male undergrads were included as well, to make sure the effect wasn't limited to cooing 18 year old girls. Again, participants in the high cuteness group showed greater improvement than those in the other group at the p=.05 level. The girls and the boys did not differ on this "cuteness effect."

Why is this important?
This is the first investigation to document that immediate shifts in carefulness—indexed here by fine-motor performance—can be elicited by cuteness cues. This suggests that two factors—the importance of physical contact in early mammalian development and the extremely delicate nature of human young—may have exerted evolutionary pressures favoring those who could respond to the presence of cues colloquially described as “cute” with increased carefulness.
No overinterpretation of data here, nope, none at all... Move along, move along.


Sherman, G., Haidt, J., & Coan, J. (2009). Viewing cute images increases behavioral carefulness. Emotion, 9 (2), 282-286 DOI: 10.1037/a0014904

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At December 18, 2009 10:38 AM, Anonymous Susan Kuchinskas said...

I don't think this extrapolates too much, myself!

At December 21, 2009 7:34 PM, Anonymous Deb E Howell said...

The theory seems sound enough. And it makes for a delightful read.


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