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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage