If you're like most people, occasionally you can't resist the pull of a cute video when you really should be working. Maybe your friend emails you a link to a baby panda taking its first steps, or perhaps a quick Facebook break devolves into a longer-than-intended contemplation of a cow that wants to be a dog. We've all been there. And we've all felt guilty afterward -- once again you've been unable to resist the pull of a highly distracting but adorable animal.
But I've got good news for you. Science says it's time to stop beating yourself up. Apparently, distractions that involve corgis dressed up as Doctor Who or similar out-of-control cuteness are actually not so bad for your productivity after all.
Your brain deals with happy distractions differently.
That's the takeaway of a study out University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign that will make you want to leap up and hug a neuroscientist. The research team set out to investigate the difference between "positive" and "negative" distractions, i.e., does it make a difference for your productivity whether you're interrupted by, say, that highly annoying chatty colleague or by a link to a gorilla who has adopted a kitten?
To do this, the researchers asked participants to complete a memory task but interrupted them with either positive, negative, or neutral images before testing their performance. "The findings indicate that ... positive distractions are linked to increased performance, compared with negative distraction. In other words, seeing the cute puppy grabs your attention, but will not interfere with completing the task at hand," says the research release.
Apparently, taking a break with a cute kitten video is OK for your performance because of how humans evolved. "Positive stimuli are less imperative than the negative ones, because the immediate costs of not paying attention to them are typically smaller. For instance, evolutionarily, not paying attention to a potential food source is usually less dramatic than not paying attention to something dangerous, like a predator," psychology professor and lead researcher Florin Dolcos explains.
The release goes into a lot more detail on which brain regions are affected and how, but unless you're looking for a deep dive into the neuroscience of distractions, here's the takeaway for the average professional -- you can stop feeling guilty if you're often being lured away from the task at hand by happy stimuli. Those sort of distractions (in moderation, of course!) probably aren't all that bad for your performance at work.