Why the Puppy Cam Is About to Make the Whole Internet Better at Photoshop

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Science shows that looking at cute things makes your fine motor skills a little better.

The Puppy Cam is back. Its annual relaunch with a new set of shiba inu babies has become like the budding of the trees in Central Park, a milestone of another year passed on the Internet.

If you don't remember it, the puppy cam was and is a livestream of shiba inu puppies growing up. Tens of millions of people watched the last few go-rounds. Time wrote them up. The New York Times wrote them up. And for good reason.

The puppy cam, when it launched in 2008, and through its subsequent incarnations, is simple and wonderful. You just watch puppies being puppies. There are no bells and whistles. It's not high-definition. It's just baby mammals growing up. And show me the mortal who is immune to the charms of a tiny thing and its siblings and its mama.

Given that millions of people are going to watch this thing over the next few months, I started to wonder: could watching puppies (spooning, falling asleep on their backs, kissing each other's heads, annoying their mom) have some sort of real effect on the world? Could this mass injection of cuteness into the mindstream of America do something to us? I'm sixty-five percent not kidding here.

It turns out that there is at least one fascinating effect. Back in 2009, researchers Gary Sherman, Jonathan Haidt, and James Coan recruited a group of 40 women at the University of Virginia and asked them to play the game Operation. You remember that one, right? There are these 12 plastic organs placed in this cardboard man gameboard; each one is set in a little cavity that is lined with conductive metal, and the point of the game is to extract the organs with a pair of tweezers without hitting the metal around the edges. (I still remember the horrible buzzing noise the game made when you did so, too.)

Then, after they'd played Operation once, they showed the women a "high cuteness" slideshow filled with puppies and kittens or a "low cuteness" slideshow filled with grown-up cats and dogs. Then they were asked to play Operation again. A day at the office, you say? No, this is science, y'all!

The experiment might seem absurd, but the scientists wanted to investigate the effects that cuteness might have on our care in executing a task that requires fine motor skills. Why?

Well, they hypothesized that babies are fragile little things. You need to handle them carefully. So wouldn't it be a nice evolutionary adaptation if *looking* at a baby mammal made you a little better at dealing with a delicate animal? Wouldn't it be nice if cuteness triggered one's ability to handle the cute thing?

Well, it turns out that it does, according to the paper the published on the research in the journal Emotion, "Viewing Cute Images Increases Behavioral Carefulness."

In both the initial experiment and another that followed with men included, people who saw really cute slideshows instead of sorta cute slideshows performed better on Operation. On average, the people who looked at kittens and puppies were able to get more than one extra organ out of that confounded game after looking at the high-cuteness slideshow. (The women-only group got an average of 1.8 more organs out!)

The effect couldn't be explained by any other factor, like that the high-cuteness slideshow made the people who saw it feel overall much better or by a simple physiological response (the researchers captured a bunch of biometrics as people did these tasks).

No, the researchers said, it really was the cuteness: "The effect of cuteness on participants' carefulness in executing fine-motor movements was likely due to the images' cuteness and tenderness-inducing qualities rather than their general positivity or interestingness."

What's wonderful about this study is that it shows that cuteness doesn't just make you want to squeeze a little baby to your chest, but makes you better at doing so. Again, I love the way they put it:

This behavioral shift toward increased carefulness makes sense as an adaptation for caring for small children, and is consistent with the view that cuteness is a releaser of the human caregiving system. Moreover, this finding suggests that cuteness does not just influence one's willingness to engage in caregiving behaviors but also influences the ability of one to do so. That is, cuteness not only compels us to care for cute things but also prepares us to do so via its effects on behavioral carefulness.

What's that mean for you? Well, the next time that you want to do a very delicate task in Photoshop, you may want to dose yourself with a few minutes of Puppy Cam (or BuzzFeed) before you attempt to put Ruth Bader Ginsburg's head on the catcopter's body, or whatever.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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