I recently came across a research paper titled "A domestic cat (Felis silvestris catus) model of triarchic psychopathy factors: Development and initial validation of the CAT-Tri+ questionnaire." I've long been interested in the emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals) including cats and wondered what this study was all about and why there was a focus on psychopathy.
As I went through the paper, I was especially perplexed when I read this sentence: "Overall, the research demonstrates that owner reports of cat behavior generate themes relevant to triarchic psychopathy factors such as aggression (meanness), fearlessness (boldness), and disobedience (disinhibition)." I wondered why species-typical cat behavior such as aggression (meanness), fearlessness (boldness), and disobedience (disinhibition) would be used to describe cats as psychopaths.
Similarly, these sentences about the behavior of wild cats made absolutely no sense to me: "In evolutionary terms, psychopathy may no longer serve an adaptive function in the domesticated cat. In an ancestral environment that demanded self-sufficiency, wild cats that had higher levels of psychopathic traits may have been more successful in acquiring resources (e.g., food, territory, mating opportunities)." (My emphasis) Why would normal species-typical behavior that allowed individuals to survive and reproduce be called psychopathic traits? How does one measure different levels? Would psychopaths have engaged in nonrandom assortative mating with other psychopaths? Would stabilizing selection have put a cap on levels of psychopathy?
The lack of consideration of the context in which these and other behavior patterns are expressed also is surprising and problematic. Critical information includes who's involved, where they are, and what caused them to do what they're doing. These detailed data can't be collected using questionnaires.
While pondering what this study was all about, I received a number of emails from researchers who have studied various aspects of cat behavior and people who have lived with cats and call themselves "cat people," asking what I thought about it. Frankly, I wasn't sure; it was a difficult read and the overall implication that species-appropriate behavior patterns that are common in cats and other animals are psychopathic was alarming. One writer simply commented, "Cats deserve better." I am also very concerned that many mass media essays carelessly suggest that there's a simple test that humans can take to see if their cats are psychopaths. Some cats might be psychopaths, but I'm leery that this can be determined by filling out a take-at-home questionnaire.
As I wondered what to write about this study, I came across an announcement of an interview about this research and I'm pleased that cat experts Mikel Delgado and Tracie Hotchner were able to answer a few questions about it.The timing was perfect and here's what they had to say.
Marc Bekoff: Why are you so interested in this research?
Mikel: I became concerned when I saw several headlines such as “Want to test if your cat is a psychopath? Researchers create new survey.” When I read the actual study, I took issue with the use of human social norms and psychological labels and trying to apply them to companion animals. Some survey items were not well-defined, and the model includes items that are typical behaviors for cats (such as hunting, enjoying climbing), and some that are considered desirable by some cats owners (such as wanting attention).
Tracie: The title of this "research study" rang a big warning bell because it misused the sensationalistic word "psychopath" relating to human mental disorders, inappropriately applying it to cats. It sounded like the eye-grabbing headline of a"catchy" supermarket tabloid.
MB: What are some of the major messages in this essay?
Mikel: Regardless of the authors’ intentions, the message that comes across is that cats are psychopaths and that the survey they created is a valid tool to measure this trait in cats.
Tracie: Sadly, the "takeaway" is that numerous normal, healthy cat behaviors are characterized as aberrant, which twists natural feline behavior to cast cats in a negative light. It has mobilized those of us who study, appreciate, and want to protect cats to defend them when unjustly attacked for being cats!
MB: What do you like about this essay and what do you take issue with?
Mikel: I think it’s great that researchers are focusing more on cats and cat behavior. However, labeling cats as having psychopathic traits suggests that behaviors and behavior problems are innate and cannot be resolved with training or environmental modification. This oversimplifies our understanding of animal behavior and cognition and could have detrimental effects on cats.
Tracie: The underlying concept is flawed.
MB: How could this study be improved?
Mikel: I think the researchers could have been much more careful in how they framed the questionnaire items. They propose this study serves as a model for psychopathy in domestic cats, but many items describe species-typical, or even desirable behaviors in cats. They also use loaded, subjective terminology: for example, labeling one factor of psychopathy as “meanness.” Cats are not mean. That is a misapplied word.
Cats may be undersocialized, fearful, defensive, or responding to stressors in their environment, all of which are valid and likely explanations for behaviors such as scratching or biting. That’s very different from labeling them as having a personality trait of “meanness” or “psychopathy” and labeling these behaviors as such, which does a huge disservice to cats. They are a perfectly normal response to an abnormal or subpar environment.
Tracie: The people involved should stick to human psychology issues. There are plenty of human psychopaths to study and this information would benefit society by doing so.
MB: Do you think that this essay will help make cat-human relationships better?
Mikel: Unfortunately, I don’t think this research will improve people’s understanding of their cats. Cat guardians already struggle with understanding cats’ basic needs and providing them with a safe, enriching environment. Cats are misinterpreted as aloof, low-maintenance, or worse (as seen in this study), and labels such as psychopathy can, unfortunately, have an impact on how cats are perceived in the public eye. Cats are sensitive, complex animals, who can thrive and be wonderful companions when their needs are met, but this survey doesn’t address how to do that.
Words matter. Labeling a cat as a psychopath instead of describing its behavior does not help cats, humans, or the cat-human relationship. It does not advance our scientific understanding of cat behavior or personality. Although this survey might reveal whether or not your cat displayed certain traits which you may or may not find desirable, it cannot tell you whether your cat is truly a psychopath.
Tracie: A cat demonstrating behaviors that are problematic to their people should not be misjudged for them, as this survey does. Many behaviors that humans find problematic are a way for our companion animals to cope with stressors in their environment, behaviors that can be solved by people educating themselves about cats, and then getting assistance from a veterinarian or a behavior expert to work cooperatively with the cat. If we are to live harmoniously with cats as our companions, they deserve the respect and dignity to be met where they stand, on their terms, not just on ours.1
Facebook image: Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock
1) I'm receiving numerous emails questioning this research from academics and cat people. This one, from Kathy R. who lives with cats, reflects what others are saying: Thank you for questioning this study and bringing in qualified experts to dispute the results of the survey. Everyone by this survey would've been labeled psychopaths, when what they really were was scared, unsocialized or under socialized, even borderline feral. I can't imagine the damage this survey could do to cats who just need our patience and kindness!
Bekoff, Marc. Enriching the Cognitive, Social, and Emotional Lives of Cats.
Delgado, Mikel Maria, No, your cat isn’t a psychopath.
Ocklenburg, Sebastian. Can Cats Be Psychopaths?