Despite being intertwined with humans for millennia and enjoying dramatic internet popularity, the personality of cats remains surprisingly understudied. A new research paper concludes that if you feel cats are antisocial — it’s probably you.
We all know how cats can be… demanding, independent, but also caring and attached. In fact, if you talk to different people about the personality of cats, you might get completely opposite answers. In a new paper, Kristyn Vitale, a postdoctoral scholar in animal behavior, writes that cats are “facultatively social animals” — they have flexible personalities and can be more or less friendly, depending on the situation. But how do they decide whether or not to be friendly and attentive? In the new study, Vitale suggests that cats are surprisingly attuned to our own personality — and to how much attention we pay them.
The study featured two experiments, both designed to highlight the cats’ interactivity. In the first one, 46 cats (half at a shelter, half in their own homes) were placed in a room with a complete stranger who sat on the floor. For 2 minutes, the person ignored the cat. After another two minutes, they would call the cat by its name and pet it when it approached.
The second experiment involved only pet cats, who went through the exact same experiment with other owners. Both experiments revealed the same thing: cats spent much more time near the human when it showered them with attention.
“Relatively little scientific research has been conducted on cat-human social behavior,” researchers write in the study. “Human attentional state and cat population influenced cat sociability behaviors,” they continue, adding that regardless of whether the cats knew the person or not, they were still more social when paid more attention.
This study indicates two things: first, cats are kind of like us. Sure, some are friendlier while others tend to keep to themselves, but if you pay attention to them, they enjoy it and become friendlier. However, since cats are territorial animals, there were big differences between how cats behaved in their home and in a different place.
Cats don’t seem to be overly independent, researchers conclude:
“Although we have found that indeed a wide range of individual variation exists in domestic cats, we have not necessarily seen this bias toward independence.”
Some cats are definitely friendlier than others — and exactly why this happens is not clear, though it’s most likely a complex mixture of genes and previous experiences — but for cat owners, the takeaway is simple: if you want your cat to pay more attention to you, try paying more attention to it.
The study “The quality of being sociable: The influence of human attentional state, population, and human familiarity on domestic cat sociability” has been published in Behavioral Processes.