WATCH: The psychology behind cute animal videos
By Elizabeth Heath
Washington - Remember the crazy cockatoo - the one dancing exuberantly while his human strums and sings Elvis's "Don't Be Cruel"? The two-minute video is made funnier still by the dancing cockatoo's straight-man feathered companion, who seems positively mortified by his partner's antics.
I either wasted two minutes of my life watching the dancing cockatoo video (and I confess, I've watched it more than once), or I practiced a little moment of self-care. Mental health experts would argue the latter.
We all need a mood boost now and then, especially when we're dealing with a pandemic, protests, a tanking economy and the possibility of being attacked by murder hornets. And if some of us get those boosts - or positive emotions, as they're referred to among psychologists - from watching cute animal videos, experts say that's fine.
"Anything that's distracting from negativity and that gives you positive emotion - that makes you feel happy - is worthwhile," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, vice chair of the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Riverside. It doesn't have to be cute, funny animal videos, either; eating chocolate or talking to friends are other ways people might find positive emotions. Those methods, however, have drawbacks: Eating too much chocolate is bad for you and friends aren't always available. Watching cute content online, Lyubomirsky says, "is easy and accessible," a quick in and out that gives us a little lift.
Positive emotions - joy, hope and love are among them - have been shown to neutralize negative emotions such as fear, anger and disappointment, says Lyubomirsky. That dancing cockatoo - or friend or chocolate - goes a long way toward keeping our chins up, especially in a traumatic news environment such as the one we're living through.
And the little bump we get from a funny video can do more than just balance out the bad news: It can help us get things done. Research psychologist Acacia Parks, chief scientist at Happify Health, a digital mental health company, explains that to complete a task, we need both positive and negative emotions.
"Positive emotions have this adaptive ability to help us explore, think about the bigger picture and be creative," says Parks. "When you experience positive emotion, it lets you do things you can't do as well in a negative mood state."
Negative emotions, on the other hand, can help us focus on a repetitive task or get through something we don't want to do, Parks adds. "A negative mood can help me be focused and determined," she says. Negative emotions such as anxiety, annoyance or even anger at ourselves for slacking off may help us, for example, meet the deadline to finish a paper, but we need the positive emotions to get out of the starting gate.
"If I need to brainstorm and be creative, say, for example, write an outline for a paper, then I need to watch the dancing cockatoo," Parks says. The outline and paper example Parks uses could be any positive action that helps us feel ready to tackle something we may dread, be it getting back on the treadmill, resuming a job search after a disappointing rejection or reconnecting with an estranged relative.
Positive emotions are also thought to help people achieve flow, says Lyubomirsky, that nearly mystical state of mind where we're concentrating, creating or performing at optimal capacity and enjoyment. So, whether it's painting a canvas, playing sports or giving a lecture to a room full of riveted students, that dancing cockatoo may give us the positive juice we need to reach peak flow state.
The original dancing cockatoo video has been viewed more than 10 million times. Even allowing for repeat offenders like me, that's a whole lot of people watching a silly video that will not render them more intelligent or informed, help them find a job or prevent them from catching the coronavirus.
Yet a quick online search for "happy animal videos" returns more than 2 trillion - trillion - feel-good results. Bears joyfully swimming in backyard pools. Puppies being rescued from sewer pipes. A heroic kitten with no front legs. And my favorite genre: interspecies love. The orangutan and the bloodhound? The bear, the tiger and the lion, rescued from a terrible roadside zoo and bonded for life? Come on! These are golden.
Yes, it's hard not to feel at least a little guilty about time spent passively watching videos online instead of being productive, but that (negative) emotion is probably misplaced.
"People have this illusion that there are positive emotions that you're allowed to have and those you're not allowed to have," says Parks. But research doesn't support the theory that the satisfaction of working on a big, important project is a "valid" positive emotion and that watching a cat video is somehow cheating or taking a shortcut to feeling good, she says. "I'd discourage anyone from thinking that just because a video is short or silly, that it doesn't have value," she says. "The groundwork we lay with those good feelings lasts."
Going back to the example of the paper outline, Parks says, "I only need to be in a good mood for 10 minutes to write the outline. Then I can write the paper when I'm mad and motivated to get it done."
And no one is suggesting we spend our whole day watching cute animal videos to build up our positive emotion bank. "My thinking is always that everything should be done in moderation for happiness or health," says Lyubomirsky. "And any feel-good activity can become addictive and take you away from important things in your life."
Apart from the risk of spending too much time on silly animal videos, there's a greater menace - that of being financially and emotionally manipulated by malware, phishing schemes or scams. In reporting this article, I came across a video of a man rescuing a fawn from a soccer net. (I swear, it was research!) Nick Lambe, director of GordAlex, a London-based technical and cybersecurity firm, says I've hence been branded a lover of baby deer. That means more, similar content is going to appear on my Facebook feed, and some of it might be placed there by people who don't have my best interests - of those of baby deer - at heart.
"Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the bad actors are absolutely onboard with covid, and they're taking advantage of the situation," Lambe says. "They know people are working from home, home schooling and spending way more time online. There's been a dramatic uptick in the number of phishing scams during lockdown."
Lambe says that when it comes to watching videos, Facebook and YouTube are surprisingly well-vetted, meaning it's probably safe to ooh and ahh over puppy videos we find there. "It's difficult to do Facebook and Google content and ads with criminal intent," he says, thanks to those companies' security thresholds, "but that just means you have to be more cunning if you're a bad guy." He says the warning bells should go off if you receive ads that "deliberately create a sense of fear and urgency" regarding animal welfare. Scammers who have the technology to home in on my weakness for baby deer could send me an urgent appeal to save 500 fawns at risk of slaughter. If I donated to save the baby deer, my money and data would be in the hands of the bad guys.
And while protecting your financial health from malicious baby deer videos is important, sensitive souls should also guard their emotional well-being. Repeatedly watching videos of animals in distress, even when there's a happy ending, could trigger feelings that are the opposite of positive. A baby elephant whose mother was killed by poachers is rescued and brought to an elephant sanctuary where he begins a new life. You might feel relief for the orphaned elephant but grieve for his mother, imagine all the other elephants felled by poachers and worry about elephants going extinct. These are probably not the emotions you're seeking when you scroll through Facebook.
The answer, say both the psychologists and the cybersecurity pros, is simply to stop looking. If animal videos are taking up too much space, either in your news feed or your psyche, scroll past them for a while. Clearing your browser cache will also help. Eventually, Lambe says, fewer baby deer videos will turn up.
In the meantime, enjoy those two minutes without guilt or shame. "A lot of us are just passing the time until things get better," says Parks. "We have no precedent to cope for what's going on in the world."
The dancing cockatoo, the liberated baby deer and the backstroking bears are here to help us get through it all.
The Washington Post