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It's Cute, It's Cuddly, It's Sapping Your Willpower

You've just scrolled through two dozen GIFs of cats jumping into boxes. Now, get ready to kiss your willpower goodbye.
Image: A kitten and puppy snuggle up together
A kitten and puppy snuggle up together.MUHAMMAD HAMED / REUTERS file

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Gergana Nenkov's professional affiliation. She is a professor at Boston College, not Boston University.

You've just scrolled through two dozen GIFs of cats jumping into boxes. Now, get ready to kiss your willpower goodbye.

Exposure to some kinds of cute things primes you to engage in indulgent behavior like overspending or eating too much junk food, according to a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

In one experiment, subjects given an ice-cream scoop in the shape of a figurine served themselves more than those using a conventional scoop — even if they weren't hungrier than people using the plain scoop.

"We think this will translate to other areas of consumer behavior like spending, procrastination, time management," said co-author Gergana Nenkov, a marketing professor at Boston College.

In another test described in the article, "So Cute I Could Eat It Up: Priming Effects of Cute Products on Indulgent Consumption," subjects were given either a plain stapler or one shaped like a red alligator and asked what they would do with it. Those with the nondescript stapler said things like "work" or "homework"; the ones with the alligator listed creative uses like "art projects."

"When you’re exposed to those kinds of whimsical objects, it makes you think of fun things," Nenkov said.

While the experiments focused on whimsical physical objects — the human-shaped ice-cream scoop, the alligator stapler — your LOLcats aren’t off the hook.

"The main distinction we make isn’t alive versus inanimate but more whether something is more whimsical," Nenkov said.

There is an antidote, though, and it’s probably not what you’d expect: puppies.

Nenkov explained there are two kinds of cute: one associated with babies or baby animals, characterized by features like big eyes and chubby cheeks, and one that correlates with the whimsical, which is funny and playful, often incorporating circular, geometrical shapes or patterns.

While silly-cute prompts us to turn our focus inwards and think about what rewards we can give ourselves, baby-cute, what academics term "kindchenschema," has the opposite effect, triggering people to perceive vulnerability and to act in a protective manner.

An earlier research study found that people who looked at pictures of puppies and kittens were better at playing the board game Operation than people who looked at pictures of other subjects. Viewing babies, whether animal or human, has been found to enhance performance on tasks that require focused attention.

So, it is possible to keep all that cute from melting your brain. Just make sure after seeing that listicle of alpacas with funny hairdos you look at some babies with crazy haircuts, or follow up a round-up of household items that look like they’re making faces with a slideshow of a panda cub.