The guilty pleasure of funny cat videos

People view kitty content to manage their moods, a new study suggests

“Grumpy Cat” pic

“Grumpy Cat” is one of the most famous cats on the Internet. Some people feel more positive after viewing cat-related images and videos, a new survey shows.

Gage Skidmore/ Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

They fill the Internet on page after page of videos, gifs and images. Viewers seek them out insatiably, from early in the morning to late at night — and even on their work computers, often in full view of voyeuristic colleagues.

Pornography? No. Cats.

Now, one scientist has conducted a survey to find out why we spend so much time watching cats online and what we might get out of it. She has found that people who view feline content tend to feel more positive afterwards — even if they feel a little guilty for wasting time. This may mean that users seek out kitty images and videos to give themselves a little bit of a boost and manage their emotions. Cat videos might seem a silly thing for a scientific study, but the research helps scientists understand why we behave the way we do online.

Cat videos may be the essence of Internet frivolity. But they can also be a vehicle through which we lift our moods and interact with friends. For Jessica Myrick, a media psychology researcher at Indiana University in Bloomington, they have another draw — their ubiquity. “I saw some news story online about how there’s an Internet Cat Festival where people go in person to watch cat videos,” she recalls. “It really struck me. There’s so much of this content out there. How does it affect us?”

Myrick sent a survey in October 2014 to the cat lovers of the Internet, asking how often they viewed cat videos and images and how they recalled feeling before and after their most recent viewing. The survey spread over the Internet from cat site to cat site and, with a boost from the Facebook page of the popular cat personality “Lil BUB,” received 6,795 useful replies. The average respondent took in kitty content somewhere between daily and two to three times per week. People were more likely to view our furry friends if they owned or had previously owned a cat, and of course, if they actually liked cats.

Most of the time, people weren’t intentionally seeking out the sweet catnip. Instead, almost 75 percent of the time, viewers stumbled across cat-related content on social media platforms such as Facebook. But regardless of how the kitty content was found, most people reported feeling more positive emotions, such as hope and happiness, after a good cat gif or three. And if a respondent associated fluffy features with positive emotions, they tended to watch more cat content to generate some warm fuzzy feelings. If they were using the feline media to procrastinate from necessary duties, however, some of the enjoyment was tempered by a bit of guilt. The results were published online June 12 in Computers in Human Behavior.

“My first thought is that [the study] was a joke,” says Chris Hinsch, who studies consumer behavior and marketing at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. “But I think the understanding of what people are doing and the impact it has on them is important.”

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The original video of the bumbling cat “Maru” has received more than 21 million views. People may turn to cats such as Maru to help manage their emotions. Credit: mugumogu/YouTube

In this case, it appears that people watch cat videos to manage their emotions, he says. But it’s likely that the cats are just one example of this phenomenon. “People are using [cat media] to manipulate their moods, like morning coffee or talking to people at the water cooler,” Hinsch explains. “The cats themselves are inconsequential. It could work with cats or cars or Barbie dolls, anything people have an interest in.”

The survey is entirely preliminary. Because it was distributed organically — shared on popular cat sites and from cat lover to cat lover — Myrick notes, “it is not a random sample of the American population.” The respondents were also around 88 percent female and 90 percent Caucasian, making it even less representative. 

And because the survey depended on recall, it can’t prove that cat videos really do increase happiness. “The conclusion that people feel better after viewing cute pets is pretty obvious,” says Anne Bartsch, who studies communications at the University of Munich.  But, she says “I’d prefer to see a study where [Myrick] actually showed participants cat content such that the ratings reflect participants immediate reactions.”

In the future, Myrick hopes to do just that experiment, as well as others that examine different types of pet-related content. There are multiple sub-genres: funny images, cute videos and emotional appeals for adoption being just a few. To really understand why we humans are so obsessed with cats online, we’re going to need more cats.

But while Myrick wants to pursue the studies, she’ll stay away from the real thing. “I’m a dog person,” she says. “I’m actually allergic to cats.”

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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