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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 14-Jan-11


Friday 14-January-11

How cats persuade

Do you have a cat? I don't. I've got two dogs. Never had a cat and never will. The world does seem to be divided into dog people and cat people (and neither people, I guess) which is a very rough and ready psychometric test. There are also likely sub-types, for example those who fuss over their cats and those who just like the lower-maintenance aspects.

Anyway. To business.

Some interesting research by Karen McComb at the University of Sussex in the UK has shown that cats have an interesting technique for persuading you to feed them. When they are hungry, they make a strange noise which, if teased apart, appears to be a cross between a purr and a miaow. On the surface to the untrained ear (and cats do train their owners) it seems like a purr, but inside is a sharper note of urgency, which the researchers found would prod the person into action.

The interesting thing about this is the way they integrate both pain and pleasure. The pain is the insistent, higher-pitched miaow, but this is wrapped up in a pleasant purr. The result is that they avoid being kicked out for being annoying whilst getting the message across.

This is maybe a useful thought when trying to persuade other people -- provide enough tension to get them going, but wrap it up in pleasant words that avoids a backlash. One way of doing this is to ask a question in a pleasant tone. You can also use pleasant words either side of the request, such as with a happy greeting and a bit of subtle flattery.

My dogs (I have golden retrievers) are not so subtle. A while before their dinner time, the older one (Ceri) will stand in front of you and stare, often making strange Darth Vader throat noises. If you keep ignoring her, she will eventually place her paws in the middle of your chest and her nose a couple of inches from yours, whilst wagging her tail which makes the whole ensemble wobble. The younger pooch (Beca) just paces around making a just-audible whine that eventually penetrates any distractions.

K McComb, A M Taylor, C Wilson & B D Charlton. (2009). "The cry embedded within the purr?, Current Biology .

Your comments

Seems like Ceri has got you trained too!

Cat and Dog lover

Ella M.

Dave replies:
I guess so, Ella, though I think it's a mutual thing. When my dogs are hungry, they just come and sit next to me and look hopeful. And then they're always ready to play or just be stroked when I want some companionship or comfort.

On a related note, I heard recently of a big debate about whether cat owners are called owners or 'care-givers' (or even 'guardians'. From the cat's viewpoint, it would seem that they do not feel like they are owned and might be insulted by such an idea. The cat's 'owner' certainly seems more like a provider.

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