Is Mindless Web Surfing the Key to Increasing Productivity?

If so, then why am I not one of the most productive people I know?

A story in this week’s WSJ tells about the work of Prof. Jennifer Ragsdale, a University of Tulsa industrial-organizational psychologist, and her research team who are studying whether surfing the internet for cute baby-animal pictures makes you more productive at the office.

OK, there’s the catch, I don’t do that kind of mindless web surfing. Sure, I’ve watched a funny dog or cat video now and then, but it’s not the type of thing I actively seek out when I’m wasting time on the web.

Prof. Ragsdale is early into what she expects will be a multiyear study in which about 150 subjects will perform a stressful task, such as editing, while fielding hostile online comments about a co-worker. During breaks, subjects will do stress-reduction activities before returning to work: 1/3 will meditate; 1/3 will likely do puzzles; 1/3 will watch a slideshow of adorableness. The researchers will score the groups to see which activity best reduces stress and boosts performance.

The slideshow of adorableness is where looking at cute baby animal photos online comes into play.

Of the three activities mentioned, looking at those photos would probably be the least desirable for me.

Although I’ve only done meditation a few times, I am aware of the research that indicates how beneficial it can be for reducing stress.

And I’ve written before about how much I enjoy puzzles, so I can see such an activity calming me down (unless of course I can’t solve the puzzle; in that case, I won’t get any work done because allI’ll be thinking about is how to solve the puzzle.)

There have been similar studies in the past; according to a New York Times report from 2006 on several studies of cuteness, “cute images stimulate the same pleasure centers of the brain aroused by sex, a good meal or psychoactive drugs like cocaine.”

One of the challenges of the new study was identifying what constitutes scientifically cute. That job fell initially to a graduate student who googled “cute dog images,” “cutest cats” and the like. Too many brown bunnies popped up, so she specified “cute white rabbits” to round out the 81 images. Then she found a similar number of neutral images—a chair, boots, a surgical team.

The researchers then hired some 100 anonymous survey-takers at $4 each from a crowdsourcing worker marketplace. The survey-takers rated each image on a scale from zero to 100 and described their feelings. Among the options: angry, disgusted, uneasy, joyous and relaxed.

The highest-rated baby animal image was of a gray kitten up on her hind legs, seemingly in prayer, scoring 84.82.

The lowest rated image was of a black funnel cloud, scoring 4.85.

The grad assistant cut the list to the top 45 baby-animal images, and the research team sat down late last year to pick the final images for the study when it begins next fall.

One image that divided some members of the team was this puppy.

Even though it scored 82.70. Some people suggested that it almost looked like a baby seal, and one person said he found the picture annoying, not calming.

There was also a Catch-22 with the selection process.

The haggling over what’s cute left some researchers stressed, with one researcher claiming, “It was relaxing in the sense we got to look at the pictures, but it was stressful when people disagreed.”

I have to agree that the two photos shown are quite cute. I’m just not sure that simply looking at them and similar images are going to relieve my stress, but I will be curious what the results tell us.

So, unfortunately, at this time I can’t offer you a recommendation on whether mindless web surfing.

If such uncertainty makes you feel more stressed, my apologies…

31 thoughts on “Is Mindless Web Surfing the Key to Increasing Productivity?

  1. That’s a neat study. I’m sure a lot of images can work to calm many people down, but we’re all individuals. So, maybe some work better on others and do nothing for some. It’s probably just a matter of finding the right picture for the right person. I love that this is being researched, though. The more stress reduction in this world, the better! Thank you for posting!


  2. That puppy is so cute and fluffy it’s creepy – I wouldn’t know whether to put it back in the sea with its mother or dust the shelves with it. A break from stressful work by looking at Facebook and funny things that people share would be good, but so would getting up and going for a walk or having a joke at the water cooler with your colleagues.


  3. Interesting study- I wonder if each person has things that calm them and not the same for all? I, too love puzzles and they put me in the calm zone


    1. I agree that it’s probably not one size fits all. For example, I think some people find cooking relaxing, it does nothing for me, and I avoid it al all costs…


  4. Great topic today, Jim. At least this study seems to have some relevancy in the work place. (It was only a couple of weeks ago that you found the study about whether males had more trouble going to the bathroom when somebody was at the next urinal.) I don’t know why that cracks me up so much—perhaps knowing that somebody was getting paid to study the pee habits of men.🤣

    I also got a chuckle hearing about the difference of opinion about the puppy. I could make a strong argument for either viewpoint (calming vs. annoying). By the way, I think I’d rather volunteer for a study rather than being paid the almost insulting rate of $4.00. (I guess I’m just in one of those moods where I find everything funny.) No, I haven’t been smoking any substance.🤣

    I don’t know about productivity, but I always manage to sneak in a few minutes of mindless web surfing each day.

    I like a variety of puzzles too; I’ve got a jigsaw puzzle of Mt. Rushmore going on right now on the coffee table.


    1. It is interesting what some people choose to research. And I often wonder if it’s simply to get a publication for tenure. A Mt. Rushmore puzzle sounds quite difficult given the one basic color. Good luck!


  5. I think some people might have too much time on their hands – and not just those who search the web for cute animal pictures. 😂


  6. Another interesting post! Of course, you know where I fall on the subject and I am surprised that in none of the comments was meditation even discussed as an option. You don’t have to learn how to look at pictures, but as stated by someone else, what pictures are calming can vary by individual. Puzzles can be relaxing when you are able to complete them, but like you, I would not finding it relaxing to be stymied and unable to finish it. Meditation is a learned skilled, but the basics are simple enough that anyone can. It also allows the individual to choose there own mental images of what they consider relaxing. I will be looking forward to the results of the study. And just in case I am not around to say it when meditation is the big winner, “Told you so!”. 😁


  7. I think the key is to get your mind off whatever is tying it in knots – rather like the mental equivalent of getting off your chair and on your feet at regular intervals.
    Puzzles can do this, but I can’t concentrate on a puzzle if I have another conundrum on my mind.
    Watching fish in an aquarium has been shown to lower blood pressure (although not if you’re the one who cleans the fishtank and it needs doing again).You don’t have to drop the problem that’s exercising your mind, but it might free up another way to tackle it.
    Stroking furry animals is also known to be good for the soul – so much so that animals are now taken around hospitals and care homes to raise spirits. Gardening is mentally relaxing to those who like it.
    Meditation is another way to stop thinking about what’s bothering you, but even there, different images work better for different individuals.
    I’m sure getting away from what you’re doing does help, even if you’re afraid you’ll lose the thread of those formulas you’re knitting together in your spreadsheet. It’s when your work is tying your brain in knots that errors creep in and links are dropped. Granted, it may take another ten minutes to recall where you were in the pattern and what comes next, but you’ll be seeing it with fresh eyes.
    It’s just a question of how you break the tension. One size never fits all; what works for you?


    1. so many good ideas here for how to maintain a high level of productivity. as for me, I sometimes like to watch funny, but mindless, TV shows if I am feeling a bit stressed. How about you?


      1. Depends on the show – mostly, I fear, the age of it. So much of the newer comedy just isn’t funny. but then, when i look at the old programmes that used to make me laugh (Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, Morecombe and Wise…) they’re just not as funny as I remember. Some things are timeless sthough..,. Les Dawson, Ronnie Barker, the original Basil Brush with Derek Fowldes, Dangermouse… On the plus side (for the newer fellers) the Ice Age films are good to dip into (revisited over the Christmas break) and the Shrek films are brilliant.


      2. I also used to enjoy Laugh-In, but I agree, it probably has not aged well. I have not heard of many of the others you mention – Morecombe and Wise, Les Dawson, Ronnie Barker, Basil Brush. And I have not seen any of the Ice Age films – sounds like I’ve got some work to do…


      3. Basil Brush and DangerMouse were children’s programmes when my kids were young. Les Dawson and Ronnie Barker were familly TV: comedians who relied on subtlety rather than banging you over the head with a joke then telling you that they’d told one: both now, sadly, deceased. (Both those films are cartoons for children, but of the kind that can be appreciated by adults.)


  8. I can see how watching cuteness would relax you, but I think she missed an opportunity for a clearer result. A cute still photo cannot compete with a humorous gif of a cute baby/toddler and pet or mother/offspring pets interacting in love. Sometimes those come across my facebook feed …I don’t seek them out but when a friend shares them, I find I can click over and over because they are just so darn funny/cute/adorable and make me smile.

    I also LOVE the twin babies eating their peas while their dad plays their fav song on guitar. I’ve watched it a zillion times. omg. I just watched it again and melted at the cuteness


  9. Interesting topic! I wonder what the researchers do when they are feeling stressed. Might be fun to turn the table around. As for me, one of my best stress reducers is exercise as well as reading blogs such as yours.


    1. that would be fun to know if the researchers got immune to the cute pictures, and if so, what they used to relax. I agree that exercise is great, it’s part of why I do it every day. And my blog can certainly help people relax, to the point where they fall asleep…


  10. Interesting read. Stress is underrated i feel. It’s everywhere yet we don’t accept it. Taking you mind off something that bothers is the ideal way, a cute picture or a cartoon. Whatever helps is great.


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