How do you feel when you look at pictures of adorable kittens or listen to your favorite Sarah Silverman stand-up set? “Productive” might not be the first word that comes to mind, but it’s probably one of the many effects these images and videos have on you. It might sound absurd, but there’s some research-backed proof that these kinds of pick-me-ups before a task increases productivity.
Japanese researchers interested in the effects of kawaii, or “cuteness,” on productivity ran an experiment in which they showed pictures of baby animals to subjects to see whether it would change their performance on a dexterity test (Nittono 2012). The performance of people who looked at these pictures of puppies and kittens shot up by more than 40 percent!
When subjects looked at less cute pictures of older cats and dogs, their dexterity rose by only 12 percent (which is still significant), and when they looked at pictures of food, performance only increased 1 or 2 percent, which was so little as to be insignificant.
The study in Japan had a relatively small sample size, and it measured dexterity, which isn’t the best stand-in metric for personal productivity. But another group of researchers led by Oswald (2014) carried out a much bigger study with more than 700 subjects over several years that shows a similar effect.
Comedy and Chocolate
In the Oswald study, productivity was estimated using a test that’s used in other productivity experiments, too. It’s essentially a bunch of math and GMAT problems, but it’s really easy to determine how many questions the average test taker gets right and attempts to complete.
Some of the subjects watched clips of comedians before taking the test. Some watched a boring video instead. Some watched nothing at all and sat quietly in a room for the same length of time as the comedy clip. And some, just to simulate the perks seen in real office environments, got free food and drinks, specifically, chocolate, fruit, and water.
So what happened?
The groups who watched the comedy clips did better on the test, on average, than the groups who watched nothing at all. And the same goes for the group who got free food and drink. Their productivity was higher by 10 to 12 percent on average.
Additionally, the groups who were exposed to these “happiness treatments,” as the research calls them, made more attempts, indicating perhaps greater effort or increased motivation.
If you run a business, don’t be so quick to run out and buy food for all your employees, however. Here’s what Oswald and co. have to say about that:
“Although our work suggests that happier workers are more productive, we cannot, as a rule, say that real-world employers should expend more resources on making their employees happier. In some of the experiments… half of the time in the laboratory was spent in raising the subjects’ happiness levels, and in one of the other experiments we spent approximately two dollars per person on fruit and chocolate to raise productivity by almost 20% for a short period of concentrated work. This study illustrates the existence of a potentially important mechanism. However, it cannot adjudicate, and is not designed to adjudicate, on the net benefits and costs within existing business settings (although it suggests that research in such settings would be of interest).”
Not All Happiness is Created Equal
Let’s not jump to conclusions about the effects of “happiness” as a blanket term, on productivity. I’ve written before about how sunny days and pleasant weather, factors that seemingly make people happier, actually cause personal productivity to decrease.
For example, most people believe that good weather puts us in a good mood, therefore making us more productive, but it just doesn’t play out that way. Sunny, pleasant days actually make office workers less productive, not more (Lee 2014). And days that are rainy, snowy, or have extreme temperatures in either direction cause office workers (who are probably very content indoors) to be a little more productive.
What Can You Do?
How can you use this knowledge to your advantage?
Watching or listening to comedy bits before work or during a lunch break probably isn’t a bad idea, as long as you keep a time limit on yourself. In the research I’ve been citing, the subjects who watched comedy clips or looked at cute baby animals were all limited in their exposure. In other words, it wasn’t in their control to decide to start surfing the Internet for more compilations of kittens cuddling with hedgehogs, or whatever you cute animal of choice may be.
Additionally, the more I research productivity causes and effects, the more I notice a rule of moderation comes up again and again. Multi-tasking, to a point, is beneficial for productivity. Interruptions, to a point, actually seem to make people more productive.
You can easily put limitations on your own happiness treatments by deciding when and where you’ll do them. For example, maybe you’ll listen to stand-up comedy on your headphones only from the car and into the office until the time you turn on your computer. Or maybe you’ll only watch one kitten video before you leave for your commute. You’ll force yourself to stop watching when it’s time to go.
Lee, J. J., Gino, F., and Staats, B. R. (2014). Rainmakers: Why bad weather means good productivity. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3), 504-513.
Nittono, H., Fukushima, M, Yano, A., and Moriya, H. (2012). The Power of Kawaii: Viewing Cute Images Promotes a Careful Behavior and Narrows Attentional Focus. PLoS ONE 7(9): e46362. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0046362
Oswald, A. J., Proto, E., and Sgroi, D. (2014). Happiness and productivity. working paper. Journal of Labor Economics. 3rd Version: 10 February 2014.
Photo by 92YTribeca, CC.