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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Miners against coal: the pit where former Welsh miners are protesting alongside climate change activists

The Merthyr Tydfil miners’ long history of struggle is spurring them on to a whole new form of action.

The retired miners and factory workers at the working men's club in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil are no strangers to hard times. Our second son was born during the 1984 strike and we had nothing for 12 months, one member tells me. The town continues to struggle with unemployment – last year the rate for men was nearly double that of the UK as a whole – over three decades on from the miners’ strike. But these days the atmosphere at the club is more resigned than radical. A singer croons his way through “Only the Lonely”, while talk at the bar is of better times: days when work was plentiful, days when, “you went down the mine a boy and came up a man”.

When the deep pits closed in the 1980s, Merthyr became a dumping ground – quite literally. Not only is the nearby landfill one of Europe's biggest, the valley is now home to the largest opencast (open-pit) mining operation in the UK. Its towering spoil tips throw a Mordor-esque shadow over the community below, coating homes and lungs alike in dust. 

Even former miners lament the small number of poorly-regulated jobs the Ffos-Y-Fran pit currently provides. Opencast is lorry driving, not mining, is a sentiment I hear repeated across the town, from the club bar to chip shops to the office of the miners’ union itself.

Just as the town's fortunes rose with coal, so they have plummeted as the industry has declined. While the fuel still accounts for around 10 per cent of UK electricity generation on any given day, last year generation fell to its lowest level since the 1950s. The need to decarbonise also looks set to reduce demand further. The effects of last December's Paris climate agreement – and its aim to limit warming below 2C  are already being felt in Wales: the Aberthaw power station is a key destination for Welsh coal, but recently announced plans to reduce its output.

The club's secretary can only think of one member who still works in the mine. Others I encounter chase shifts at the local meat-packing factory, or have to travel for over an hour outside the town. Support for jobs unsurprisingly usually trumps support for climate change deals: “If it brings in work, we don’t have a problem with it,” is the general consensus inside the club. If someone tells you they're against the mine, they're probably from England, not Wales, says a resident of the nearby village of Fochriw. 

The people of Merthyr, however, are also no strangers to fighting perceived injustice. In the early nineteenth century, Merthyr's thriving ironworks made it the largest town in Wales. But when depression hit in 1831, low wages and sudden dismissals drove many to despair. By the start of June that year, thousands gathered to march against the iron masters and coal barons. And for the very first time, the red flag of revolution was raised on British soil.

185 years later, while club members sipped their drinks, others are writing Merthyr's history afresh. Up on the hills above the town  beyond the litter-strewn fields and the “Danger: No trespass” signs  around 300 campaigners from across the UK gathered to call for an end to coal.

Led by the climate activist group Reclaim the Power, many of the camp’s young attendees work for Westminster MPs and NGOs. A litter-pick was followed by the rapid erection of communal kitchens and sustainable loos. There were safe spaces, legal training, and warnings not to disturb the nearby nesting birds.

On Tuesday morning, the activists occupied and (temporarily) shut down operations at the mine – tying themselves to machinery and lying across access roads in an attempt to symbolise the red line that carbon emissions must not cross. Their action is the first in a fortnight of global anti-fossil fuel protests  from plans for train heists in Albany, to protesting in kayaks in Vancouver. And while global reach counts for little without local support, the climate campaigners at Ffos-Y-Fran are not alone.

Since 2007, members of the United Valleys Action Group (UVAG), a group of local residents and ex-miners, have also fought the mine's planned expansion into the nextdoor valley. On Tuesday, many joined with the activists to blockade the entrance to the mine's headquarters. One member, 56-year-old Phil Duggan, has worked in the pits from the age of 16. And while he is “no tree-hugger”, he is tired of accepting jobs at any cost.

I don't want my children to suffer the ill health I have,” he says. “To some extent we [ex-miners] have been able to claim compensation. But the way things are going now you're not going to be able to claim anything. The deregulation of employment is making people desperate  we're going back to an era that our fore-fathers unionised to put right.”

In a strange twist of fate, it’s these Merthyr miners history of struggle – their long fight to protect their livelihoods and communities  which now spurs them to action against new mines.


Phil Duggan entered the pits aged 16. Photos: India Bourke

Wayne Thomas at the National Union of Mineworkers says he recognises that, unless carbon capture technology can develop apace, the Paris agreement looks set to speed up  coal's decline. But he also believes that British coal has its place in responsibly managing the transition to renewables – a place that includes reducing foreign imports, cleaning up the dirty acts of private mining companies, and putting control back in the hands of local communities. If you're going to phase out an industry, you've got to put something in place to limit the damage.

For evidence, he need point no further than the co-operatively run mine at Tower colliery, where an independently-managed fund ensures that, when the time comes, the opencast site will be carefully regenerated. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the privately-owned operation at Ffos-Y-Fran for certain.

Last year, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a moratorium on opencast mining. The government has yet to act, but this may change depending on how the balance of power falls after Thursday's elections. Assembly candidates from both the Green party and Liberal Democrats voiced their support for the UVAG campaigners at a meeting in one of the villages effected by the new pit proposals.

Utlimately, the decline of some of Welsh coal's main customers  the steel works at Port Talbot and the power station at Aberthaw  is likely do more to undermine UK coal than the red lines campaigners draw. But, along the way, new alliances between climate idealists and unions could breathe new life into both movements. In the words of Merthyr Tydfil’s ancient motto: “Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde”  Only brotherhood is strong.


Chris and Alyson, founders of United Valleys Action Group.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.