Why cat videos make us happy

The results of a study published this month in the journal Computers in Human Behavior counters what fans have guiltily acknowledged for years — that cat videos are chiefly a procrastination tool.
The results of a study published this month in the journal Computers in Human Behavior counters what fans have guiltily acknowledged for years — that cat videos are chiefly a procrastination tool.

The Internet is filled with cats — in videos, photos, gifs, memes, and more. But why?

One Indiana University media scholar has some insight into our digital obsession: Kitties make us feel good, even as virtual artifacts on a screen.

IU assistant professor Jessica Gall Myrick decided to investigate the origin and effects of our the Internet ’s collective addiction after noticing for the umpteenth time that her social media feeds were clogged with posts documenting everyday feline feline antics.

“If we really want to understand how media affects us, if we don’t study cat videos, we’re missing a big part of the picture,” Myrick said. Famous cats have acquired a massive and dedicated following — Arizona resident Grumpy Cat, for example, has 7.7 million fans on Facebook and has played the lead role in a Lifetime motion picture.

So Myrick sent out a questionnaire online, which drew in almost 6,800 responses.

Her analysis, published this month in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, counters what fans have guiltily acknowledged for years — that cat videos are chiefly a procrastination tool.

But, Myrick said, at the same time “my data show it’s not a complete waste of time.”

It turns out that after watching videos, people reported feeling happier, more hopeful, and less anxious. If they felt a twinge of guilt about goldbricking, the overall feeling of happiness made up for it.

Researchers have already documented a host of benefits associated with owning a pet. In her paper, Myrick makes thatthe case that watching animal videos may be a form of low-cost, easily accessible “digital pet therapy.”

Myrick, who has a pug named Biscuit but no cats, also identified some personality traits common among cat-video fans who answered her survey.

They tended to be introverted and shy, but personable — and to spend a lot of time online. In other words, she said, “It actually hits the cat person stereotype a little bit.”

Myrick’s observations align with what her media scholar colleagues have identified as “mood management theory.” This idea suggests that images or video can lift our spirits alter our mood and that we unconsciously select items that will have that effect. In this case, cats.

“Cats are not being greedy or blowing stuff up; they’re not yelling racial slurs,” Myrick said. “You know before you click on it that this is going to make you feel good.”

The Social Media column runs every other Saturday in the Boston Globe’s Living Arts section. 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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