Kitties often get a bad rap for being uncooperative, but a team of researchers discovered their natural curiosity means they’re willing to participate for the sake of science—as long as it works for them!
Feline aficionados are quite familiar with their kitties’ desire to nestle into boxes, bags, laundry baskets, and even squares or rectangles taped to the floor. A new study suggests cats might also perceive illusions—such as the Kanizsa contour illusion—as perfect places to sit.
In 2020, lead researcher Gabriella Smith, now an animal behavior researcher at the Alex Foundation, was a graduate student at Hunter College at the City University of New York (CUNY). She attended a lecture evaluating illusory contour perception in domestic dogs by Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere, director of the Thinking Dog Center and assistant professor at CUNY Hunter College. Afterward, Smith wondered if cats might sit in a box that was actually an illusion. “I’ve witnessed my own cat perching atop laundry on the floor as soon as I have put it down,” Smith tells Daily Paws.
So with a team that included Byosiere and visual illusion expert Philippe Chouinard at La Trobe University in Australia, Smith worked with pet parents in a ‘citizen science’ experiment to see how domesticated cats would react to illusions when placed around their natural home environment.
Did Optical Illusions Fool the Cats—Or Is That Just What They Want You to Think?
Volunteers received directions to place three different shape models on the floor, and videotape their cats’ reaction to each—while wearing sunglasses so as to not give the kitties any visual cues! Believe it or not, participating cats were just as likely to sit in an illusion of a square as they were an outline of one.
“What is most surprising to me is that cats in the study actually spontaneously engaged in the behavior of sitting in the various stimuli. To date, no study had really evaluated scientifically whether cats would sit in enclosed outlines of shapes on the ground,” Byosiere tells Daily Paws. “While the sample size is small, I am still surprised the cats selected to sit on anything!”
Total cattitude for sure—so why might they? Aside from the comfort the sides of a shape provide, Byosiere thinks it might have something to do with a predatory response position in which an ambush is possible, or that interesting and novel objects elicit feline attention.
Smith adds that while these typical characteristics don’t explain why a cat’s attraction is extended to 2D shapes on the floor, she’s excited the cats in the study were motivated to engage, and how this illuminates that they’re great candidates for citizen science. You know, if they want to be!
“The cats behaved normally and ‘like cats’,” Smith says. “Cats are revealing that they’re perfect candidates to study certain behavioral and cognitive phenomena via harnessing their reliable instincts to do so.”
Both Smith and Byosiere believe opportunities like these are terrific educational and interactive ways for pet parents to interact with their companion animals, so the next time you hear of a study, don’t even ask for your purrball’s permission—just give it a try!
The staff of Daily Paws conducted an ‘experiment’ involving kitties’ ‘If I fits, I sits’ contour perception as well. Check out our results on TikTok, and tag us with #DailyPawsPets if you’ve done it, too!