Cats, dogs and human social cues

Some researchers in Japan tried to find out if cats can pick up on human social cues. Dogs showed a preference for people who help their owner, preferring to take food from the helpers rather than the non-helpers, but cats were indifferent.

When this method was used to test dogs, they showed a clear negativity bias. The dogs preferred not to take food from a stranger who refused help to their owner. In contrast, the cats in the new study were completely indifferent. They showed no preference for the helpful person and no avoidance of the unhelpful person. Apparently, as far as cats are concerned, food is food.

This fits in with what I've always thought about cats being smarter than dogs.

There are reasons to be cautious of this kind of study, though:

It's an example of anthropomorphic bias. It involves interpreting cats' behaviour as though they were furry little humans, rather than creatures with their own distinctive ways of thinking.

To really understand cats, we have to get out of this human-centred mindset and think of them as cats. When we do, what seems most likely isn't that the cats in this study were selfish, but they weren't able to pick up on the social interactions between the humans. They weren't aware that some of the strangers were being unhelpful.

I think it's also possible they can pick up on human interactions quite fine, but they simply don't care.

Despite their popularity, we still know relatively little about how cats think.

Well, you might say that, but having been a slave to cats for may years I can tell you their primary goal is to be in charge. They set about training owners to attend to their every whim and, experience tells me, they're very successful at that. They understand humans well enough to know precisely how to manipulate them.

The problem with comparing cats and dogs is that dogs are pack animals and interpret their status as followers of the human. Cats, by contrast, are loners and interpret their status as superior to everything else that breathes, including Japanese scientists.