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.