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Power Science

Cats "Exploit" Humans By Purring 503

Posted by kdawson
from the frequently-mistaken-for-a-meatloaf dept.
An anonymous reader notes a BBC report on research recently published in the journal Current Biology, indicating that cats manipulate humans by adding a baby-like cry to their purring. "Cat owners may have suspected as much, but it seems our feline friends have found a way to manipulate us humans. Researchers at the University of Sussex have discovered that cats use a 'soliciting purr' to overpower their owners and garner attention and food. Unlike regular purring, this sound incorporates a 'cry,' with a similar frequency to a human baby's. The team said cats have 'tapped into' a human bias — producing a sound that humans find very difficult to ignore."
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Cats "Exploit" Humans By Purring

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  • hardware? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Turiko (1259966) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @05:34AM (#28688173)
    was the one who tagged this on drugs? hardware? power?
  • by BadAnalogyGuy (945258) <BadAnalogyGuy@gmail.com> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @05:37AM (#28688189)

    Assuming that the cats are in fact intelligent creatures, it would make sense that they have learned this behavior. Feral cats do not exhibit this behavior, so it is most likely learned or self-developed.

    However, it could also be that the constant exposure to humans and the direct selection of cats which humans like the most by the owners has led to a selection bias for cats with this behavior.

    I find it hard to believe that this is somehow one of those hokey "100th monkey" behaviors, but I also find it extremely interesting that this behavior is widespread.

    • Self domesticated (Score:5, Informative)

      by msgmonkey (599753) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @05:42AM (#28688211)

      Don't forget that cats self-domesticated so the the evolution of this kind of behaviour would have been baised from the begining.

      • Re:Self domesticated (Score:4, Interesting)

        by jonadab (583620) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:07AM (#28688987) Homepage Journal
        > Don't forget that cats self-domesticated

        Thing is, cats *aren't* domesticated. They only pretend to be when it suits their purposes.

        If you want to see what domesticated looks like, look at dogs, or horses. Domesticated dogs and horses take their instructions from human masters. Cats, as a rule, don't.

        Cats live *among* humans and coexist more or less peacefully with them, but so do squirrels and houseflies. Cats accept food from humans and even depend on it as their main food source, but so do wild birds that eat at feeders. Cats will even occasionally approach a human and allow themselves to be petted, but only when it's their idea.

        There's a continual argument between people who prefer dogs and people who prefer cats, over which kind of animal is smarter. Of course, there's a great deal of variation in intelligence from one dog to another, and one supposes there may also be from one cat to another, but fundamentally the main reason this argument has never been resolved is because nobody can really demonstrate exactly how smart cats are, because the cats don't cooperate with the study. If you've got a dog, you can find out exactly how smart he is, based on what you can teach him. A monumentally stupid dog can learn about one trick, and then when you try to teach him another, he either can't figure it out or forgets the first one. On the other end of the scale, the most intelligent dog I've ever known recognized an English vocabulary of several hundred words and understood SVO sentence order. With a dog, you can find out exactly how smart he is, because he'll cooperate with the whole exercise. A dog is a social animal. His whole life is focused around *you*. A cat is altogether a different beast. A cat does what it wants, when it wants. You can try to teach it stuff, but as a rule the cat doesn't cooperate, so you can never really be sure what it's learned and what it hasn't.
        • by The_mad_linguist (1019680) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:49AM (#28689459)

          Actually, it isn't *that* difficult to train a cat. Most people just don't bother.

          • Yeah, mine wanted to get scratched every morning, so I trained him to listen for when the shower is done, wait a minute or so, and then come in. he sits patiently on the toilet seat, I scratch him for about 30 seconds to a minute and then say "All done", and he hops off and walks out. Before training him, he'd rub up against my leg all morning, driving me nuts. Now, I spend 1 minute giving him attention, he's happy, and I get my morning back.

            Yes, you certainly can train a cat.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            True. You simply have to prove to the cat that it's being given the advantage by 'learning' the appropriate response. For instance, my cat will sit with (I hesitate to say 'command') the right suggestion and hand gesture. But I have to back the suggestion up with food or he gets disappointed I broke the agreement and the next time he will approach the 'sit' suggestion with wariness.

            But he also trains me in return. He likes to drink from the tap, therefore he whines a particular meow until I go over and turn

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by Creepy (93888)

            Most people do some training of their cats - I don't know of many cats that do their business, say, on the couch rather than in a litter box.

            I admit, I personally have never trained one, but that has more to do with allergies... my scratch test was so severe that it overran about half the other tests and ran over my shoulder (I maxed the scale and then some). Basically, cat spit=fatality for me (and yes, it is their saliva that causes the allergic reaction, not their hair as is popularly believed). Heck,

            • by eclectic4 (665330)
              "I don't know of many cats that do their business, say, on the couch rather than in a litter box."

              Most cats do this instinctually. We've had many cats (kittens, newborns) over the years, and I've never had to "train" them to do so. Just an FYI.

              However, we HAVE been able to train a few to do some things, like retrieve a toy, etc...
            • The litter box thing is more a matter of giving them something that makes following instinct more convenient for them. Cats generally prefer to bury their waste. You give a cat a box of something sandy and easy to dig through where nothing else is, and it doesn't take much to get them to use it. My current kitty it literally amounted to setting him in the litter box once when we first brought him home. He only failed to use it twice after that, once was the first time someone carried him upstairs (perso
        • Re:Self domesticated (Score:5, Interesting)

          by jfrankmbl (1542851) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:55AM (#28689535)
          How much of this perception is expectation? I've had cats and dogs, and while I agree that dogs are easier to train, it is still possible to completely train your cats to respond to verbal and gestural commands. I think a lot of people don't even try to train their cats, or treat them like untrainable companions because that is what they expect. When the cat does something bad, instead of looking how to modify the behavior, people say "oh, that's cats for you!" and then give the cat attention (either negative or positive). I think one of the big differences between cats and dogs that set up this mentality is cats respond a lot better to negative attention than do dogs. When a dog is punished, he feels cut off from the pack, and while negative attention is slightly better than nothing for a dog, it has a more significant impact in reducing unwanted behavior when paired with intermittent positive reinforcement. Cats on the other hand, just like attention. When training them, you just can NOT punish bad behavior unless it is a serious transgression (knocking over the tv, smothering the baby, etc). Instead you have to focus on rewarding positive behavior. So, if your cat meows a lot, don't yell at him or squirt him because he then will continue to meow--he thinks you are talking or playing with him. Instead, wait until he stops and reward the silence. Cats are a little more like toddlers. In general, the most negative action I take is to ignore them, but then give them lots of praise and reward for acting in ways I approve. So don't say cats don't take instruction from humans. I think it would be more accurate to say dog and horse owners take more care to understand the psychology of their pets and put more effort in training them, and as a rule, give up on cats before they even try training because they have already jumped to the conclusion it's impossible.
        • by SuperBanana (662181) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:07AM (#28689705)

          If you want to see what domesticated looks like, look at dogs, or horses. Domesticated dogs and horses take their instructions from human masters. Cats, as a rule, don't.

          If you want to see what non-domesticated looks like, have a feral cat in your house for an hour or two. Or a feral dog.

          If you and your house survive, congratulations. Cats ARE, in fact, domesticated animals, as are dogs- because they have early and often human contact. If kittens (or puppies) are not handled frequently once they get beyond a certain stage, they won't recognize or trust humans.

        • by mcgrew (92797) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:11AM (#28689771) Homepage Journal

          You're wrong; thay are domesticated, moreso than horeses and almost as much as dogs. They just have different psychologies. I taught my oldest daughter's cat to fall down and play dead when I point my finger at it and say "bang. We had cats when the kids were growing up, and the cats listened better than the kids.

          I care for my oldest daughter's cats, they'll come when called and obey other instructions.

          Cats live *among* humans and coexist more or less peacefully with them, but so do squirrels and houseflies.

          That's bullshit. Try petting a squirrel.

          The biggest difference between dogs and cats is that "nice" dogs are whores, letting anyone pet it. Try petting a mean rottweiler; I've seen dogs bite their own owners.

          • by nbauman (624611) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @10:20AM (#28690719) Homepage Journal

            Try petting a squirrel.

            He bit me.

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by MrKaos (858439)

            Try petting a mean rottweiler; I've seen dogs bite their own owners.

            My neighbor had a mean black rottweiler. It used to get out *all* the time bailed all my other neighbors (and me) on our own lawns from time to time and left massive turds on the lawn, and it stank when I opened the door in the morning - thanks neighbor.

            I took to spraying it with the garden hose, and when it growled at me I'd growl right back.

            Eventually everyone in the street got fed up with the dog getting out all the time. The dog tur

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Lumpy (12016)

        Self domesticated? are you nuts?

        Cats were domesticated normally originally in Mesopotamia, you really need to learn about cats. The wierd part is the bizzare letting the animal do what it wants holdover from a few millennium ago is all out bizzare.

        My cats act like my dog. They come when called, they fetch (one LOVES fetch big time) they actually do tricks very well. And people are incredibly astonished at this. My youngest cat is not de-clawed as it is a experiment. It will NOT claw anyone it plays wi

    • by John Betonschaar (178617) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @05:45AM (#28688221)

      Well, as a cat owner I'm not surprised at all. My cat learned quite a few different sounds since I got her, initially it wasn't more than the common meow, but now she uses quite a few different purrs and grunts for different occasions. Like in the morning when feeding time takes too long it's almost like a dog growling in really short bursts, while when you get home it's a more like a high-pitch grunt or purr. I'm sure dogs have similar ways to show their feelings or try to communicate stuff. Cats know damn well what they can and can't do and what will happen when they act some way or another, so it's not a big step from different sounds for different events to learning that certain sounds seem to do trick.

    • by sqldr (838964) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @05:55AM (#28688269)
      You should hear the noise it makes when I mistake its arse for a pencil sharpener.
    • by Kupfernigk (1190345) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @06:04AM (#28688313)
      Cats that make the most attractive noise get fed most. Have the most offspring. Eventually dominate. Given what we've done to dogs by selective breeding in just a thousand years or so, this is a simple and believable scenario. Selecting cats for their purr is no more extraordinary than, say, the difference we've created between a spaniel and a Mexican Hairless.
      • Erh... the flaw in your theory is that the cats that are closest to human (i.e. cats living in apartments), thus also the best fed ones, are also the ones that are most likely not able to produce any offspring...

        • by rvw (755107)

          Erh... the flaw in your theory is that the cats that are closest to human (i.e. cats living in apartments), thus also the best fed ones, are also the ones that are most likely not able to produce any offspring...

          I don't know in what world you live, but those cats create offspring like rabbits! Where I live there are so many cats going outside each day and night, enough opportunity to do whatever needs to be done.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Opportunist (166417)

            Dunno where you live, but where I do people routinely have their toms' cores removed, so to speak. With them they tend to be a wee bit hard on the olfactory senses.

            And female cats in heat can be quite a bit of a handful too, so this is 'taken care of' as well...

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Antidamage (1506489) *

        The other thing to keep in mind is that dogs endear themselves with pack behaviour, something cats don't quite take to.

        Dogs are extremely engaging, attentive and loyal and that's pretty much all they had to do to ensure their survival alongside humanity.

        Cats, lacking this instinct, had to evolve to be cute as well or face getting eaten. Therefore the most personable, adorable and lovely cats had a much better chance of survival.

        I guess that goes quite a way to explaining why cats are much elegant appearing

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by obeythefist (719316)

          Imagine an animal that looked like a dog and behaved like a cat. We'd eat that fucker to extinction as a service to the world.

          Those are called foxes. I presume considering there is no Kentucky Fried Fox restaurant near me that they are not yummy.

    • by Daemonax (1204296) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @06:09AM (#28688349)
      Natural selection or artificial selection is what you should have titled that.

      Intelligent design is a term used for a fairly specific type of religious sophistry.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by hattig (47930)

      All I learn from this is that cats that are more insistent (extrovert, cute, lucky to have that purr characteristic), get more food and shelter, and thus a higher chance of survival.

      It's like the introvert in the IT closet who won't ask for a pay rise. Yeah, you're stuck eating ramen then, aren't you. GO AND PURR AT YOUR MANAGER. Unless your manager is Catbert...

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by jkxx (739331)
      Some of it's learned while the rest is inherited. My maine coon running to the VCR and hitting the stop button to get my attention would definitely qualify as learned behavior though.
  • by Kokuyo (549451) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @05:39AM (#28688199) Journal

    I seem to be 95% immune to my cats when they pull tricks like that. My cats know damn well that I'll feed them before going to bed. It can happen anywhere between coming home and right before actually going to bed.

    My cats are persistent, make no mistake, and my wife can be very annoyed with them, but I usually wait until I happen to feel like feeding them. So if their mewling is comparable to a baby's cry I shudder to think what kind of dad I'd make ;).

    I should mention, though, that they have dry food available at any time so it's not like they're hungry when I feed them. It is actually a very interesting way to learn to not give in to annoying behaviour.

    • by Opportunist (166417) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @06:19AM (#28688401)

      It is actually a very interesting way to learn to not give in to annoying behaviour.

      This alone tells me that you'll be one of the few parents that raise good kids.

    • So if their mewling is comparable to a baby's cry I shudder to think what kind of dad I'd make ;).

      I wouldn't worry. Most all women who have had more than one or two children know how and when to ignore a crying baby.

      I've had just about any animal you could think of as a pet, but I've learned over the years that barring any individual's fascination with cats (and the requisite personality traits required for membership in a cult or a successful career as a waiter), dogs make far better pets. Hell, even for

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by markdavis (642305)
        >dogs make far better pets. [...]that will happily sleep at your feet or otherwise leave you undisturbed for hours at a time That is just YOUR opinion, though. I think cats make far better pets. They, too, will leave me undisturbed for hours at a time and yet happily sleep in my lap. They are interesting, soft, beautiful, loving, playful, relatively easy to care for, trainable (not as much as a dog, though), flealess (indoor), generally quiet, have a long lifespan, and self-grooming.
      • by pilsner.urquell (734632) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:38AM (#28688815)
        The more you know about cats, the more you know about women. Simply put when they want attention, they want it NOW.
    • by Znork (31774) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:00AM (#28688935)

      Well, cats and babies use what works. If a specific sound is what gets you going, then that's the sound you'll get when they want something. Which is why your approach is perfectly fine; as long as you know there's nothing really wrong, training them to sound like something's horribly amok all the time isn't desirable.

      On the other hand, sometimes it's good to reinforce nice ways of asking for attention. Personally I give in and play a bit when my cats roll over on their backs and purr (just far enough out of reach so I can't pet them), or when they bring their toys to me. Or I'll look what they want if they tug at my elbow. The only annoying sound that will get them something is the plaintive meow accompanied by scratching the floor near the litter box. That one means 'the litterbox is dirty, change it or I'm gonna piss on the floor', and considering they usually have a point and a reasonable tolerance, I'll accept that one.

  • are cats poised to take over the world? Or is the exploitation thing only limited to catfood?

  • old news (Score:2, Interesting)

    by loki_tiwaz (982852)

    i noticed years ago my cat used to put on this special voice that seemed to elicit some kind of unconscious reaction in me. second time around at cat owning the little wench has tried it once or twice but i'm immune to it, the first cat overdid it and it stopped working for him.

    when i first read this article i thought it was talking about the 'chirping' that cats do when they are extra happy purring, or maybe something a female cat a friend of mine has does a lot, these quiet, semi-pur semi-miao chirpy nois

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by loki_tiwaz (982852)

      i thought i should clarify about the 'special voice' i refer to, it's not that brrraaao sound, although a neighbour's cat i noticed doing that, and it resembles the call female cats do when they are on heat, which can often closely resemble a baby crying, it's a sound that's more akin to the sound of a bell being struck, a very rich resonant sound. that's the only cat miao wanting attention that i've ever found compelling, the other kind of miao is just cute and doesn't seem demanding at all.

      • Re:old news (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Aladrin (926209) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @06:30AM (#28688459)

        My cat just has an annoying meow sound she makes when she wants attention. It's not cute or nice, it just grates on the nerves. She was very late in learning to meow when she wants things, so I think that has a lot to do with it. (I had another cat that took care of her and did all the asking, so she never had to. After he died, she had to learn to take care of herself and she was already like 5 years old.)

        There's no doubt she learns, though... But sometimes she 'learns' things that are wrong. For instance, for some reason she thinks that I'll fill up the water bowl more often if she drops food in it. She's wrong, but she's done it for years now. There's always exactly 1 piece, no matter how far from the food bowl it is.

  • hidden effect (Score:2, Informative)

    You know i think its more a subtle effect...not some mind controlling thing ^^ I mean, pretty much everyone thinks that cats are cute...right ?
  • by Norsefire (1494323) * on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @06:25AM (#28688435) Journal
    everything [xkcd.com].
    • by ozbird (127571) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @07:05AM (#28688637)
      Never get a cat. [geekculture.com]
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        Interestingly enough, that is my house, except I'm the one with the cat. My wife often complains that I pay more attention to the cat.

        I'm so tempted to tell her that if she were cute and cuddly I'd pay more attention to her. That, and the cat doesn't mind when I pet her.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by DarrylM (170047)

      Hehe... that's good. I like this as well:

      Felis catus, is your taxonomic nomenclature,
      An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature;
      Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses
      Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.

      I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
      A singular development of cat communications
      That obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
      For a rhythmic stroking of your fur to demonstrate affection.

      A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
      You would not be so

  • Cats are evil (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    When a dog looks at you it thinks "What can I do for you master"
    When a cat looks at you it thinks "If I had hands I could open my own cans, and you'd be dead"

  • by petes_PoV (912422) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @06:46AM (#28688545)
    Just like some birds have learned to mimic the ring tones of mobile phones (and normal phones, too). There's no evolutionary pressure here, it's just that cats do have some (small - very small) glimmer of intelligence and learn that making certain noises will get them what they want. Babies also do this, so we're not talking about anything that's particularly difficult. Dogs are also known to respond to their names - though to to all the other chatter that their owners seem to think they'll understand.

    In fact, pretty much any animal - even my goldfish, can be conditioned to respond to a food stimulus - they know what precedes them being fed and act accordingly.

    The only surprising thing about this is that the cats haven't got their owners better trained in all this time.

    • by AmiMoJo (196126) <mojo@NOspaM.world3.net> on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @10:20AM (#28690699) Homepage

      Cats are very unusual in evolutionary terms. For solitary animals, they have remarkably well developed social skills. The ability to make a wide variety of vocal sounds is usually associated with social development and mating habits too.

      Clearly humans have not been a major factor in their evolution - we have not been domesticating them for nearly long enough. By chance they developed into cute, furry and agreeable little things that human beings enjoy having around. They are intelligent enough to manipulate us quite successfully and yet, despite being fully aware of what is happening we accept and even enjoy it. Being highly independent they have their own little lives which fascinate us.

      Maybe it's just anthropomorphism, but it's certainly highly fortunate from the cat's point of view. Average life expectancy in the wild is a few years, domesticated it's 10+.

  • In other news... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by BigMeanBear (102490) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @06:46AM (#28688547)

    Stuff with brains can learn.

  • Over 50 replies and nobody resorted to LOLcats and the associated mangling of the English language.

  • by aquatone282 (905179) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:04AM (#28688963)

    ... cats wouldn't be purring at all.

  • by stimpleton (732392) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @08:29AM (#28689177)
    My mothers cat was a companion to her beyond something on 4 legs that just wanted food.

    Highlighted by the animal's actions previous to my mother suddenly passing away. For several weeks the cat would never leave her side, as she became ill. Then mom passed away suddenly in her sleep. The autopsy revealed a ruptured cyst around a cancerous growth on the large intestine. For a couple weeks previous to her death, she had complained the cat was licking the area just under her ribcage. The doctors were confused as to the raw area of skin on her belly area. The cat knew, and I believe was an effort to heal my mother the only way a cat knows how.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by BitZtream (692029)

      First off, I'm sorry.

      But ... the cat wasn't trying to heal her, it was preparing to eat her.

  • by unity100 (970058) on Tuesday July 14, 2009 @09:10AM (#28689751) Homepage Journal

    cats have not tapped into anything at any time. it was already their normal attitude. cats psychologically see humans as their mothers. both men, and women alike. it doesnt matter. therefore they do all stuff they do to their mothers, to their human companions. no surprise they also make that sound.

    to 'tap' into such a thing would require a cat to observe a baby, then imitate him/her. yet, how many cats that were in the research have observed a baby crying ? how many cats were raised with a baby ?

    this thing has to be just another instinctive behaviour cats do to their mothers at early age. i wonder why this schmuck didnt research whether baby cats also do that to mother cats.

  • Come on - we partnered with dogs 70k years ago or so, and what happened? We sat around, scratched/licked our private parts, hunted (a little), and hung out and told stories.

    Then, maybe 12k-20k years ago, cats domesticated us, and the next thing you know, we're doing agriculture, and building civilization... so that they could live in the manner in which they intended to become accustomed.

    It's all their fault...

                        mark

    --
    The truth will out: someone got it at last:
          Dogs have masters; cats have staff.

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