New research suggests that our feline companions understand the principle of cause and effect. Jason G. Goldman reports.
Psychologist Saho Takagi, a graduate student at Kyoto University in Japan, strolls into one of Japan's many cat cafes. These establishments allow customers to pay an hourly fee for the chance to cuddle some cats. They're popular in Japan because so many apartment buildings forbid pet ownership. But Takagi isn't a typical customer. She's not there for feline affection, but to probe their minds.
The psychology of domestic cats is still something of a mystery, despite our overwhelming familiarity with the critters. They have many skills, she tells me through an interpreter, that are not well known even to their owners.
Takagi and her colleagues wanted to see whether domestic cats have an intuitive understanding of cause-and-effect, but to make it a fair test, they decided to let the cats use their ears instead of only their eyes. Cats are ambush hunters, and rely on their sense of hearing to locate their prey.
The cats—30 of them, mostly from cat cafes, plus a few pets—were shown a series of demonstrations. For example, a researcher would shake a box, accompanied by the sound of an object bouncing around inside. Then the cat would be allowed to see inside the container.
If the cat expects to find a ball inside the box, it would stare longer if the box turned out to be empty, rather than if the ball was there as expected. Psychologists call this a "violation of expectation" response. If they expected a ball and were surprised not to find one—or vice versa—it suggests that cats have certain expectations about the physical realities of the world.
And the cats did stare longer at those containers that violated their expectations, as if to suggest that they realized that something in the situation was amiss. The findings were published in the journal Animal Cognition. [Saho Takagi et al., There's no ball without noise: cats' prediction of an object from noise]
Takagi suspects that this ability might be related to cats' hunting skills. Despite years of domestication, we initially kept them around as a form of pest control, so it makes sense that cats would have retained their knack for hunting.
Next, Takagi wants to see just how much information domestic cats can extract about objects, like quantity or size, based on what they hear. Eventually, she hopes to do similar experiments with wild cats as well, to see whether her hunting hunch is right.
—Jason G. Goldman
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]