Quote:Cats have been a thing on the Internet almost as long as we've had the World Wide Web. Cat memes are legion, and social media has made stars of felines like Sockington, Maru, and Lil Bub (who is even having her genome sequenced). There are festivals and art installation raves about cat videos. Jessica Myrick, a professor at Indiana University, set out to quantify the behavioral effect of exposure to all those cat videos, and the results have just been published in the journal Computers and Human Behavior.
Is this obsession with Internet cats a good thing for society? We know that having a pet improves one's mood, but does just does watching Maru leap into boxes satisfy this same part of us? Prof. Myrick surveyed consumers of Internet cat content, looking to find motivation and detect emotion. She also tested a new model of how procrastination, guilt, happiness, and enjoyment are interrelated when it comes to our guilty pleasures on the Internet.
There are three schools of thought on why people to turn to Internet cats. The first is best exemplified by Emergency Kitten, which delivers users a dose of (Creative Commons-licensed) baby cat as a palliative for stressful times. Next is procrastination—for instance, when someone spends their time looking at cat pictures in their Twitter timeline rather than finishing up an article, perhaps. Thirdly, there might be a personality component: different personality types are predisposed towards fixes of digital felines—particularly introverts, because cats are seen as antisocial animals.
The study's participants were self-identified consumers of Internet cat content—6795 in all, heavily skewed in favor of women (88.4 percent) and white people (90.4 percent). On average, this group watched cat videos or looked at cat pictures almost every day, and had an average of 2.3 cats each (if we ignore the standard deviation; the numbers were skewed by some outliers). Interestingly, questions designed to assess participants' Big Five personality traits revealed a majority of introverts, and the group additionally contained a lot of shy people. But they were also a happy bunch, at least when asked to think about the previous two weeks.
Watching cat videos online may well have contributed to this general happiness. Participants reported a decrease in negative emotions—annoyance, anxiety, sadness, guilt—after an Internet cat fix, as well an increase in positive emotions (hope, happiness, contentment). Thus, the use of Internet cats as a mood modifier—the Emergency Kitten hypothesis—appears to pan out. As for the motivations behind those procrastinators, Myrick's data works with her model. Although procrastinators felt guilt after watching videos of cats knocking things off desks when they should have been working, that was more than offset by the pleasure obtained. The effect was also dependent on the quality of the cat content.
Although Myrick's study was specifically about the effect of Internet cats, the participants were also getting regular—but less frequent—exposure to dogs and other animals online. Teasing out the relative contributions to our emotional welfare made by a doge or red panda versus a surprised kitten might be difficult though. Participants were also far more likely to re-up their Internet cat fix unintentionally, actively seeking out exposure only a quarter of the time. Although, as Myrick notes, if one's social media network is enriched for cats, finding lots of cats online may not be surprising.
Should the idea that we turn to cats on the Internet for mood enhancement be that surprising? After all, it seems intuitive, but science often proves human intuition wrong. Prof. Myrick's study provides empirical data on the various benefits to consumption of Internet cat content, although it may yet be some time before the FDA approve Henri Le Chat Noir for use as an anxiolytic.
Computers and Human Behavior, 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.06.001
People get paid for this stuff?