Cat owners often lament that their cats seem to own them, not the other way around. But according to research, there may be a grain of truth to that. Various studies have determined that cats have the ability to manipulate humans in small and subtle ways.
Cats have evolved alongside humans, giving them the ability to observe human behaviors. Cats use these observations to manipulate humans. These manipulative behaviors include using a special purr to signal urgency, encouraging beneficial behavior through reciprocity, and lowering our heart rate and blood pressure.
On the other hand, these manipulative behaviors don’t mean that your cat doesn’t like you. Quite the opposite. In fact, cats have been shown to prefer spending time with their owners. Cats even go so far as to choose human interaction over food and toys.
Table of Contents:
- 1 Do Cats Control Humans?
- 2 Does My Cat Love Me?
Do Cats Control Humans?
Scientists do not know a lot about cat cognition, or how cats use their brains to interpret the world around them. What science does know, however, is that cats can observe our behavior. Specifically, they have the ability to exhibit something called ‘social referencing.’
Social referencing is something that children learn to do and continue to do into adulthood. It’s when you’re in an unfamiliar situation, and you look to the people around you to learn how to react. For example, when someone says something absurd, you probably look at the people with you to see how they react. If they laugh, then that means it was a joke, and that you should laugh too. Social referencing is a complex process, which is why animals exhibiting it is a sign of that animal’s intelligence.
And cats exhibit it with flying colors. A study published in the journal Animal Cognition exposed cats to a ‘potentially frightening’ situation. Specifically, this situation was a fan with streamers attached to it. When the fan was turned on, the streamers would produce a crackling noise. The cats were observed to look back at their owners. And, sensing their owners’ calm behavior, the cats’ fear of the fan disappeared, some even choosing to lay down beside it.
This ability to social reference can be an explanation for how cats manipulate humans. As they are smart enough to put our behavior in context, they can train themselves to behave in ways that trigger those behaviors.
Why Cats Manipulate People
The word ‘manipulate’ does not exactly have the best connotations. In the case of our feline friends, however, it does not necessarily imply evil, or malice. In fact, scientists believe that this manipulative behavior is simply the way cats interact with humans. It is deeply ingrained with how our feline companions form relationships with us, and us with them.
Cats Were Not Domesticated
Technically speaking, the term ‘domesticated cat’ may be a misnomer. Cats were not domesticated in the usual sense. Rather, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cats simply showed up to the first human settlements. Seeing that they were good at hunting rodents, humans decided to keep them. For this reason, some scientists choose the term ‘semi-domesticated’ to show the distinction.
Once we think of cats as animals that chose to settle with humans, the behavior of present-day cats begins to make more sense. The relationship was mutually beneficial. Over time, cats with more docile traits were favored over more violent ones, effectively creating new species that would eventually become the different breeds of house cats we know of today.
Cat Manipulation Techniques
All of these traits, including their origin and upbringing, paint us a clearer picture of our feline companions. Over the thousands of years we’ve known them, cats have taught themselves how to live alongside us. And sometimes, these ways include manipulation.
A Very Special Purr
In a study in the journal Current Biology, scientists discovered that a special kind of cat vocalization may be taking advantage of our inherent instinct to nurture. Specifically, it’s a solicitation purr.
Most purrs which have a low, droning sound. Solicitation purrs, however, have a high-pitched cry embedded within it. When played to a group of participants, it was determined that these purrs were more urgent, less pleasant, and harder to ignore. The researchers then edited out the high-pitched cry. When played to the same group of participants, the participants determined it to be less urgent.
What’s more, these participants were a mix of people who owned and didn’t own cats. Whether they were cat owners or not did not make a difference with their perception of the two types of purrs. This led the researchers to conclude that whatever this high-pitched cry is doing to us, it’s wired deep within our brains.
Unsurprisingly, this study took the zoology world by storm. But how exactly does it work? Previous research has linked feline vocalizations, namely their various meows and purrs, to that of human babies. It may be possible that this high-pitched cry is similar to that of a crying baby. This led researchers to believe that this special purr invokes the same instinct in humans when responding to babies that need to be fed.
Of course, cats didn’t study human babies to see how they can include this crying into their own vocalizations. Researchers believe that over time, cats may have determined which vocalizations worked on humans or not. This urgent, cry-purr worked wonderfully well on human beings. Thus, the technique was passed down from one generation to the next, leading to cats who have managed to mimic baby cries in their own, special way.
A Language Just For You
According to the Journal of Comparative Psychology, cats know just how to meow to get what they want. The study involved sampling 100 different meows from 12 cats. Volunteers then rated these meows according to pleasantness, then urgency.
They found a consistent human interpretation of the meows. The most urgent and less pleasant meows? Longer calls with more energy, vocalized at lower frequencies. Less demanding and more pleasant meows were shorter, with energy even at both high and low frequencies.
Researchers believe that this came about with a form of ‘artificial selection,’ where cats who use these types of meows were selected over those who did not. To prove this, the researchers recorded the calls of wild cats. Their findings? The calls were neither pleasant nor appealing, and always sounded angry.
Of course, cats don’t understand the meaning of their own meows. What they do know, however, is which meows elicit which human behaviors. And, as this study shows, cats are very good at it.
Not only are cats able to ‘talk’ to us, they may do so by mimicking our accent. Specifically, they may do so by using prosody, or changing the melody of how something is said. One word can have many meanings depending on the tone that a person uses—and some scientists hypothesize that cats can do the same.
One such scientist is Dr. Susanne Schotz, project manager for Meowsic, a study on the melody in cat-human communication. According to a paper presented at the Fonetik Conference, Meowsic aims to determine whether cats have prosody, and if they do this by following the prosody of their owners. Meowsic will determine this by playing human speech to cats and recording their reactions.
Meowsic is a five-year study set to finish in 2021. If Meowsic’s researchers find evidence of prosody and imitation, this may be evidence that cats are smart enough to learn from human beings. And, if so, give us more insight as to just how much can cats copy the way we talk.
Reciprocate Wanted Behavior
Parents know how to get their children to do what they want. Whether it be through bribes, praise, or thought-out arguments, parents have an arsenal of techniques to convince their children to do something.
Science argues that this relationship may be very similar to a relationship between cats and humans—and that cats may have more say in the relationship. In a study published in the journal Behavioral Processes, researchers determined that the bond between cats and humans may be akin to the bonds that humans have to other humans.
Among their findings was evidence of cats giving in to their human’s wishes—but only if the human fulfilled their wishes first. Cats also tend to wait for humans to initiate the interaction. And sometimes, they won’t even reciprocate at all.
So, the next time you hear someone describe their cat as their child, remember that there may be a kernel of truth in that statement. And if you have a feline child of your own, don’t feel too bad about having your behavior changed by your furry child.
Researchers of the study note that the human-cat dynamic goes both ways. Each party influences the other’s behaviors, even if your cat may be getting more out of the bargain.
Cats Are Very Cute
If you think cats are adorable, science can back you up on that. According to Frontiers in Psychology, cats have physical traits that resemble those of infants. These traits are referred to as kinderschema, or baby schema.
Coined by ethologist Konrad Lorenz, the baby schema includes traits like a large head, a round face, and big eyes. The theory is that these traits increase the cuteness of babies, motivating adults to take care of them, nurture them, and give them more attention.
While we all know that cats are cute, the study determined that cats, alongside dogs, elicit this nurturing behavior in humans. Researchers determined this by manipulating pictures of cats, dogs, and babies, increasing and decreasing their baby schema. The manipulated and unmanipulated photos were then shown to toddlers. The toddlers were asked to give ‘cuteness ratings’ to the pictures. Their gazes were also recorded to determine how and where the toddlers were fixated at.
According to the results, the effect of the baby schema also extends to cats and dogs. In fact, the way that we look at human babies is similar to the way that we look at cats and dogs. What’s more, this effect appears way early in life, in children as young as 3 to 6 years old.
Turns out, whether or not our cats manipulate us on purpose, we didn’t have much say in the matter anyway. And, once more, cats have proven themselves to be like babies, in more ways than one.
Does My Cat Love Me?
Cats have the unfortunate reputation for being cold, aloof, and unfeeling. With all the evidence of their ability to manipulate, you may be left wondering. Do cats only see us as a way to get food?
In Behavioral Processes, cats were presented with a choice between food, toys, and human interaction. Despite not being fed for the past 2.5 hours, half of the cats chose to interact with humans. These cats were also a mix of both pets and shelter cats. This implies that all cats do value human beings, even those they don’t know very well.
So, cats are good at manipulating human beings. However, there is good evidence to show that your cat likes you, anyway. Much more than food and toys, even. While their shows of affection aren’t as obvious as that of dogs, and much less obvious to those who don’t own cats, your cat loves you. This evidence of affection paints their manipulative behavior as cats communicating in the best way they know how.
Cats Are Good for Humans
Even if cats did not like us, they are still very good for us. Various studies have shown that owning cats is great for our health, in many different ways. Here are some ways that cats give us better health:
Purring Aids In Healing: While science has yet to learn how purring works, we do know that it can heal. Purrs come at a frequency of 20 to 100 Hz, a frequency that has been established as therapeutic for humans.
Better Sleep: Pets can be a disruption when sleeping. But research shows the opposite: they may be good for our health. A study in the National Library of Medicine surveyed pet owners who slept with their pets in their beds. Of the people surveyed, 41% reported getting better sleep when their pets slept with them.
Reduce Stress: In a study in Science Daily, researchers determined that petting cats and dogs for as little as ten minutes reduce cortisol, a major stress hormone.
Fewer Allergies: Some people may be allergic to cats, but it may be possible they can actually reduce allergies, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to its findings, children raised with two or more dogs or cats during the first year of their lives may be less likely to develop allergic diseases.
How Cat Manipulation Works in Practice
We know that cats can manipulate humans, and that they are fairly effective. But how does it work, exactly?
There is a sore lack of science surrounding cats. While dogs are the subject of many studies on pet cognition, cats are left in the dust. There are more grants being given to canine research, leading to fewer researchers, leading to fewer studies. But why is this the case, and what can we do about it?
While it may seem harmless, the common perception of cats as cold and aloof definitely doesn’t help their case. Most people believe that cats are disinterested, lazy, and less smart than dogs.
While the findings of cat studies imply otherwise, the general perception of cats continues to hold fast. This leads to less grant money spent on researching cats, which means less researchers, which means less studies.
Of course, it should be noted that it’s not all our fault. Cats, too, share the blame, albeit at a lesser extent. In the first study that compared cats to dogs, published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, cats performed just as well as dogs. However, some cats simply didn’t want to participate. Some cats in the study wandered off, did not pay the researchers any attention, or simply walked away from the testing site. Even when cats decide to stay on site, they are skittish around strangers, and hard to give orders to.
So, cats do seem to have the intelligence to pick up on human behavior and use it for their own purposes. However, finding out how they go about doing so may prove to be a challenge.
Thankfully, a small handful of researchers continue to fight the good fight. Most of the research we have today about the behavior cats have on humans come from researchers who continue to work with cats, despite the issues they pose as test subjects. And as technology, theories, and techniques continue to be honed and developed, we learn more and more about our feline companions. And we learn, too, just how much they actually have a say on the things that we do.