Do cats experience a sense of self?

A viral online video that seems to indicate cats are capable of experiencing “mirror self-awareness” falls short of proving that felines have a true sense of self-identity, according to this analysis based on the research of University at Albany psychologist Gordon Gallup. While a handful of animals — including primates, dolphins and elephants — are able to recognize themselves in the mirror, the more likely explanation is that the tuxedo cat in the video is expressing defensive behavior, Dan Nosowitz writes. Popular Science (4/9)

 
Earlier today, Gawker posted a video of a housecat looking at itself in a mirror, slowly raising one paw and looking with wonder at its own reflection. “Smart cat figures out how mirrors work,” reads the headline. Let’s delve very deeply into a minute-long YouTube clip of a cat doing something weird!  Click the link below:

Mirrors are used in cognitive science in a task called the “mirror self-awareness test,” or MSR test. It’s a controversial experiment, developed back in 1970 by a University of Albany psychologist named Gordon Gallup who later wrote a scholarly article called “Does Semen Have Antidepressant Properties?” The MSR test requires that an animal be given some kind of visual oddity, usually a dot or two of color, on a part of their body only visible through a mirror (often on a part of the face or head). If the animal (or human!) sees their reflection in the mirror and attempts to touch the part of their own body with the unfamiliar dot of color, that animal is judged to have demonstrated mirror self-awareness.

Very few animals pass this test. All of the great apes–humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans–pass, as do some cetaceans like bottlenose dolphins and orcas (killer whales), and a few oddballs like the elephant and magpie. Some other animals demonstrate partial self-awareness–gibbons and some macaques, for example, will sometimes become confused and gesture at their faces, which does not constitute a pass of the test but does indicate that they understand that something odd is going on. A few monkey species, pigs, and corvids (crows, ravens, jays) demonstrate a similar partial understanding of the self.

Humans, interestingly, change in their perception of themselves; before the age of about 18 months, humans have either no or only partial success in the MSR test. Before 18 months, they’ll react with curiosity or avoidance.

Cats have never once demonstrated that they have any sense of self at all. Reactions of cats to being shown their reflection in a mirror vary; some will ignore the reflection, some will attempt to investigate behind the mirror to find the cat that is presumably back there, some will act wary or aggressive towards what appears to be another cat able to counteract its own gestures perfectly. This is a freaky thing, if you don’t know that it’s you in the mirror.

The cat in this video is behaving defensively, with the “anxious” posture laid out in this helpful chart of feline body language. Notice that its ears face entirely toward the “threat,” that its tail is puffed up and often pointing downwards–these are cat signals that mean “defensive aggression.” Its attack posture is kind of…not very threatening, moving slowly and warily like that, but it’s still quite clear why it’s acting the way it’s acting. It’s not waving at itself, it’s gesturing threateningly at the scary cat staring out at it from a few feet away.

 For a video to see a cat react to it’s reflection, click the following link: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ssFfh5wNsao

The mirror test is controversial in the psychology field; there’s the problem of children or animals not caring that there’s a spot on their faces, and so providing a false negative result when they don’t bother to clean it. It’s also been theorized that the test is unfair for animals that rely more on other senses than sight. The domestic dog, for example, relies much more heavily on smell than sight.

There’s also the more philosophical problem of, what does this actually even say? Really, the only thing that it proves is the ability to recognize one’s self in a mirror. This paper argues that you can’t really extend success in the MSR test to represent full self-awareness.

Sorry, wary waving tuxedo cat. You still haven’t demonstrated self-awareness. But you are very cute.

9 Responses to “Do cats experience a sense of self?”

  1. Rob says:

    Cats are self aware. I have observed a cat(cat 1) I owned react to me putting a collar on her, because she had been acting jealous towards the other female cat who had a collar of her own. When I gave cat 1 a collar she jumped onto a vanity to examine the color in the mirror. Clearly you all don’t spend much time with cats.

    • Jasmine says:

      Well it’s pretty obvious you don’t know very much either haha.. cats, well any animal really, are not capable of being “jealous” that’s a human concept.

      Why would a cat be jealous of a collar? A cat wouldn’t gain anything out of wearing one. What is it that the cat was doing that makes you think its jealousy?

      I also don’t think she was jumping up to the mirror to examine the colour.. for one cats can’t see very much colour at all, pretty much only yellow really, it was more likely along the lines of “wtf is this around my neck?”

  2. Jasmine says:

    Well it’s pretty obvious you don’t know very much either haha.. cats, well any animal really, are not capable of being “jealous” that’s a human concept.

    Why would a cat be jealous of a collar? A cat wouldn’t gain anything out of wearing one. What is it that the cat was doing that makes you think its jealousy?

    I also don’t think she was jumping up to the mirror to examine the colour.. for one cats can’t see very much colour at all, pretty much only yellow really, it was more likely along the lines of “wtf is this around my neck?”

  3. Alyce says:

    There’s another video on line now of a cat who finds its ears. Check that out. I would just Google; “cat finds its ears”.

    • Justin says:

      I just watched this video of the cat finding its ears. I don’t want to anthropomorphize, but it certainly appears the cat is aware that the reflection is itself.

  4. Beverly says:

    My sister’s siamese cat who has compusive tidyness (a disorder some siamese cats have which causes them to overgroom) after he was neutered he walked past the mirror (he was still pretty loopy from the anastheasia) when he appeared to notice the green dye on his fur in the mirror and then frantically checked his own body and proceeded to try to clean off the dye.

  5. Sophie says:

    I once had a cat who knew what mirrors were for. My husband was >her< human. Where he went, she went. Where he sat, she sat. My dresser and my husband's dresser were on perpendicular walls. The bathroom door was on a wall across from my dresser. Rita would sit gazing into my dresser mirror. I realized one day that she wasn't looking at herself, but at the indirect reflection of my husband at the bathroom sink. The bathroom door was mostly closed, but his reflection in his dresser mirror was reflected into my dresser mirror, and she could watch her human brush his teeth, trim his beard, and comb his hair. She died in his arms, age 17.

  6. CAROLINE says:

    My black male cat lives with a tabby female, and they get on well normally, but the black cat likes to play-fight with the female.
    Today the tabby cat was on the stairs, and the black cat came through my bedroom door, then parked himself just inside the bedroom, by the doorpost, out of sight of the landing. He watched the door, expectantly, in a ‘pounce’ position. The tabby cat came across the landing (out of sight of the black cat) and as she walked through the doorway the black cat pounced on her.

    The black cat must have had a sense of self. He guessed that the tabby cat was heading up the stairs and was likely to come into the bedroom. He knew that she would not be able to see him if he hid just inside the bedroom, next to the doorway.
    He worked out that he could surprise her if she walked through the bedroom doorway.
    He must have thought this through, anticipated the tabby cat’s likely direction, and worked out that she would not be able to see him as she walked towards the bedroom.
    He pounced on her, and she was clearly surprised and not expecting him.

  7. Annij says:

    @Jasmine

    I do not wish to be impolite, but your comment: “Well it’s pretty obvious you don’t know very much either haha.. cats, well any animal really, are not capable of being “jealous” that’s a human concept.”
    Jealousy isn’t a human concept. This behaviour, and behaviour is all we can truly examine (even with humans regardless of what they tell you) is a trait exhibited by many species.
    Be wary of these absolute statements,–jealousy is a human concept–anthropologists used to believe that only humans could use tools, or talk or rationalize or plan or strategize or recognize themselves in a mirror. . . .

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