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Robert Kurzban

The Evolutionary Psychology Blog

By Robert Kurzban

Robert Kurzban is an Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite. Follow him on Twitter: @rkurzban

Irrational Cats

Published 3 January, 2013

Hi, Felix here. As the saying goes, on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog, so, full disclosure: I’m a cat. (Rob suffered a stress fracture to his right ankle, and he’s had a devil of time getting anything done, so I’m substitute blogging for him. No need to send flowers or any of that sort of thing. If you’re feeling generous, please send sardines to me at Rob’s home address. He’ll know who they’re for.)

Ok, today’s topic: my species is irrational, but also fun to observe, which is not so different from your species, so don’t look so smug.

So, anyway, I was at a New Year’s Eve party – yes, we cats like to get jiggy with it too – and I noticed a new game this year. My good friend, Pickles, had managed to persuade his person to bring his iPad to the party, and many of the cats were thoroughly engrossed by it. A big favorite was the Ping-Pong ball app. You can see videos of this on YouTube. A ping-pong ball moves around the screen, often seemingly of its own accord. My friends and colleagues slapped at the ball the whole night.

Now, I just told a lie there. My friends didn’t really slap at the ball. They slapped at a picture of a ball. The iPad app had been programmed to respond to cat slaps roughly in the way that a real ball would respond, bouncing around in the virtual box. (For that matter, we cats will slap at real ping-pong balls, too.)

Now, I’m not a scientist, and the party had some smart people around, so I thought I’d ask them their opinions why cats do this. I mean, after all, it’s a bit odd, right? There’s no actual ball there to hit and, even if there were, it’s irrational: You’re not going to get any food out of the exercise… it’s just a waste of calories and time, right?

First I ran into one of my economist friends. He was persuasive:

From these observations, you can infer that cats have ping pong ball-hitting preferences. Not only that, but it’s possible to judge how strong these preferences are. Simply give cats a choice of apps to use, measure how often they choose the ping-pong ball app compared to other apps, and that gives you a sense of the strength of the preference. Now, cats don’t use money, but you can think of the “price” that a cat will pay to use the app as, roughly, how much it enjoys the things it declines to use in favor of the app. This is the cat’s opportunity cost of smacking ping pong balls, so can be thought of the price it will pay to do so. Now please excuse me while I lick my haunches.

That made a lot of sense to me: we cats hit ping-pong balls because we have ping pong ball-hitting preferences. And nice because it could be made formal with prices and everything. But then I ran into an anthropologist. She said,

In cat culture, ping-pong ball hitting is valued. As a consequence, because cats learn to acquire the hitting behavior. Have you seen the milk bowl?

Ah. Cat culture. Of course. That made sense to me, and I thought it one-upped the economist because he had no account of where his so-called preference came from. So that was satisfying. But then I ran into a developmental psychologist. He said.

Adult cats are better at hitting ping-pong balls than kittens are. So, we know it’s not innate. Um, I have to go… *cough*… hair ball…

While he was taking care of that, I ran into another psychologist. She said:

Well, some of your other friends are partly right. It is learned, and it is about culture. But the key is that hitting ping-pong balls defends a cat’s cultural worldview. Cats fear their own death (even though the first eight don’t count), so they have to find ways to deal with that fear. Hitting ping-pong balls is part of that worldview defense because doing this is part of what it means to be a cat. Um, do you know the way to the kitty litter?

I was getting confused, so I thought I would ask one more cat, whose name was Chuck.

Well, it’s important to bear in mind that explanations for cat behavior come in many forms. There’s a physiological explanation, going from the retina to the areas of the brain that drive movement… then there’s a developmental account… and these explanations are correct, but my guess is that what you’re after is something along these lines. Our feline ancestors lived in a world in which prey were distinguished from non-prey by certain movements that they made. Mice, for instance, because they have muscles, move in a way that is different from, say, a rock, which cannot abruptly change direction unless it hits a wall or other solid object. Put roughly, cats who, eh, smacked objects with these properties (and did appropriate things with them) enjoyed greater survival and reproduction… Cat brains today reliably develop with a kind of circuit along these lines, and any stimulus that emulates these properties of movement evokes the smacking response. Because of humans’ inventions of iPads, there’s now something of a mismatch, if you will. This causes cats to be as irrational as, say, humans, when they give money to an unknown stranger in a Dictator Game, or what have you. To start studying this phenomenon, what you’d want to do…

At this point, I wandered off to watch the ball drop, and I had had so much catnip that all I could think about was munching on the sardines I’d seen fall behind the comfy chair in the living room.

Rob should be back in a week or two. Happy new year to everyone. This year, my resolution is to finally catch that blasted red dot that always seems to get away.

  • Gabryant

    Wasn’t that last cat named Niko?

  • Noah Carl

    If you’d run into a post-modernist, he/she might have told you the following:

    “The question of why the cat slaps the ball is irrelevant because the app itself is simply a cultural construction.”

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