You know the old stereotype: Cats are assumed to be cold and detached from their human housemates, absorbed in their own little whiskered world. Dogs, on the other hand, are supposed to be attuned to our feelings—capable of knowing when we’re sad or excited or scared, and willing to proceed accordingly.
There’s actually scientific evidence that dogs have the ability to read the emotion behind human voices. Babies have this ability, too, through a process called social referencing. When confronted with unfamiliar people, places or things, they look to Mom and Dad for voice and facial cues indicating how they should best react.
But a new study recently highlighted by NPR’s Barbara J. King suggests that cats may use social referencing, too—and maybe don’t fully deserve the wrap they’ve been getting for egotism.
The study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, involved 24 felines and evaluated, as the authors write, “whether cats use the emotional information provided by their owners about a novel/unfamiliar object to guide their own behaviour towards it.”
To answer that question, researchers set up a room with a screen on one side obscuring the exit and, on the other side, an electric fan with ribbons attached. Then they introduced a cat and its human to the space and asked the owner “first to regard the fan with neutral affect, then to respond either positively or negatively to it,” writes King. As they responded, the human subjects were told to glance between their pet and the fan.
More than three-quarters of the cats, 79 percent, looked between the owner and the fan when the owner was in the neutral phase at the start of the experiment. This percentage closely matched the results for dogs in a similar setup, and shows that cats, too, rely on us for emotional cues when faced with unfamiliarity.
Furthermore, the cats whose owners had expressed a negative reaction to the fan were found more likely to look towards the exit than those who experienced positive owner reactions. This potentially suggests that cats from the negative group were worried and wanted out.
Does this mean that we should be more conscious of how we behave around cats in unfamiliar situations? Yes, Isabella Merola, the study’s lead author, told NPR's King. (Though Merola did point out that further studies are needed to “better investigate this communication and the valence of voice vs. facial expression or body posture.”)
So, even if that aloof little face staring at you from the couch cushion makes you think otherwise, your cat really does care what you think—or at least it has the ability to.