Cute kittens can boost office productivity, says study

Looking at LOLcats could benefit your workflow.

As far-fetched as it may sound, a recent Japanese study reveals that looking at pictures of cute animals doesn’t just improve your mood, it can actually increase your productivity.

Contrary to the more traditional methods used in most corporate productivity plans, the report's findings support a more off-beat strategy: harnessing the power of "Kawaii".

In Japan, "Kawaii" (meaning cute) has become a cultural phenomenon in itself. From Pikachu to "Hello Kitty", the unyielding popularity of kawaii-culture has evolved into a multi-million dollar industry with a truly global reach.

According to the research, the popularity of kawaii lies in its propensity to generate ‘‘positive feelings”, triggered by the resemblance of cute characters to babies. As result of some deep biological impulse, studies suggest that the wide-eyed, chubby-cheeked look directly elicits a sense of well-being amongst adults; a feeling similar to those induced by looking at cute animals.

In the study’s first experiment, 48 students between the ages of 18 and 22 were given a relatively simple task: to play the Japanese equivalent of the board game Operation. Using tweezers, the subjects were asked to pluck plastic body parts from holes in the body of the "patient", without touching the sides of course.

After posting similar results in the first round, the students were divided into two groups. The first group were then shown pictures of cute kittens and puppies, while the others were shown images of fully-grown cats and dogs.Then the participants were asked to play again.

Astoundingly, the students who viewed the kawai-creatures were able to pluck out more body parts than they had done in the first round, whilst those shown the photos of their "non-cute" counterparts failed to improve on their initial score.

In another experiment, a fresh group of 48 students participated in a timed game in which they had to count how many times a certain digit appeared in cluster of numbers. As with the previous group, one group was shown photos of baby animals, while another group was shown adult animals. This time however, a third group was shown images of luxury foods, including photos of steak and sushi.

As with the first experiment, the researchers found that members of the "cute animal" group far outperformed their peers, recording higher scores with far fewer errors.

“Kawaii things not only make us happier, but also affect our behaviour”, concluded the Hiroshima University study.

“Cuteness not only improves fine motor skills but also increases perceptual carefulness”.

The key mechanism here lies in the ability of "cuteness" to tap into our innate compulsion to provide care to infants, which induces an added degree of diligence and carefulness in our behaviour. The research argues that this behavioural advantage can extend beyond caregiving into other activities, “such as driving and office work”.

So if you needed yet another reason to routinely check Pandacam or yet another excuse to forward ‘Bath Time for Baby Sloths’ to everyone at your office, then there you go.

Forget about incentive programmes, complex ranking systems and technological optimisation, investing heavily in lolcat posters might just provide the productivity boost your business craves.

Cute kittens: the key to productivity. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Ward is a London-based freelance journalist who has previously worked for the Times & the Press Association. Twitter: @alexward3000

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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage