You gonna answer him, Punkin?!?
September 22, 2008 8:29 PM   Subscribe

A friend told me an awesome story the other day. I'm wondering if it's true or not. See, these researchers put a bunch of domesticated cats in a room...

Ok, so this was [supposedly] a real research study. Researchers put a bunch of domesticated cats in a room. These are cats that have been raised to know that they have a name, i.e. Punkin or Grover or Fluffy, etc. A researcher then enters the room and calls out one of the cats' names. Now here's the interesting part: the cat whose name was called would NEVER look at the researcher, but ALL the other cats in the room would look at the cat whose name had been called. As in, "He's calling your name, gonna answer him?!?"

Call me weird, but this cracks me up, and the friends that I've told it to seem to think it's pretty funny as well. I would absolutely LOVE it if this were an actual study that had happened somewhere, but I'm starting to doubt that it's true. Is there any way to check to see if it's something that DID occur somewhere, sometime?
posted by Spyder's Game to Pets & Animals (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
How on Earth would the cats know each other's names?
posted by grumblebee at 8:51 PM on September 22, 2008

I didn't do an official study, but my two cats do this sometimes. Well, really I think they are just responding to my "cat calling" tone of voice... it just usually happens that the one I want to respond ignores me, and the other one is suddenly very interested. I chalk it up to the contrariness of cats. I can sometimes trick them by calling the wrong cat, but sometimes that leads to them both ignoring me.
posted by purpletangerine at 8:55 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

JSTOR, a search of a journal collection of 60-odd universities and colleges in Ohio, and Google Scholar all turned up nothing apropos. But that would be pretty nifty.
posted by Picklegnome at 8:56 PM on September 22, 2008

Yeah, wouldn't the "that's not me" cats look around and see the one cat perking up, tail raised, acting all "Yes? You called?"
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 8:57 PM on September 22, 2008

> As in, "He's calling your name, gonna answer him?!?"

I have never heard of this "study" but my interpretation would be that the other cats heard a meaningless sound and so wanted to check it out, but the cat who knew what it meant was studiously ignoring it.

On the other hand, I don't believe this is a true study, because a cat that comes to its name often won't come when someone else calls its name with a different tone of voice.

It's amusing, though.
posted by Listener at 9:01 PM on September 22, 2008

Response by poster: Um, I guess I always thought that the cats had been raised together? This premise is starting to feel weaker by the second...
posted by Spyder's Game at 9:03 PM on September 22, 2008

Wait, you said the cat in question never looked. My bad. Could be some other cue, if it's a true story. Avoidance behaviour, as already suggested.

But does sound like a cutesy made up tale to me.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:00 PM on September 22, 2008

It does sound cutesy and made-up, but it sounds like a legitimate experiment. The thing is that the named cat plays coy - that's difficult to do and feels like an apocryphal tale relating to people's experiences with the fickleness of cats.

The experiment could be done stringently (multiple cameras on mechanized platforms to keep track of all the cat's attentions and people to man the control of those platforms) but it's contingent on a non-compliant cat. If you one don't get this the first time (and in replicate experiments by calling other cats and having those cats not respond*), then it's a coincidence, not significant data.

*I'd have to run the power calculations on this, but on a feeling, it's have to be done on at least five to ten different population of cats to even approach being believable beyond coincidence or the quirk of a few cats.

Besides - who the hell would fund these researchers to do this experiment?!**

** There's this experiment with three monkeys in a cage with a ladder and a banana hanging within reach of the highest rung of the ladder. When a monkey reaches for the banana, *everyone* gets hosed down. The next time a monkey crawls up the ladder to grab the banana, the other two monkeys beat them down. The reaching monkey is removed and a naive monkey is put in the cage. Repeat. Eventually, all of the original monkeys are removed from the cage. When a naive monkey reaches for the banana, the other naive monkeys will still prevent them from doing so.
posted by porpoise at 10:31 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, ok, but what's the hypothesis? That somehow Felix tells the other cats his name? And why would he then *necessarily* play coy? This element sounds like the *gotcha!* because it foils the other-cats-notice-who-reacts explanation.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 11:04 PM on September 22, 2008

Yeah, I remember hearing TONS of "research" stories as a freshman in college. It took about 4 weeks and a few classes of how research is actually done before everyone stopped talking about monkey sex, broccoli feeling pain, and horses preference for a vegan diet.

Except the business majors. They're still motivated by monkey this day.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:08 PM on September 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

Oh yeah...another term I used to hear lots of was "journals". "I read it in a journal". Yeah, sure. Well if it was a journal, then its DEFINITELY true!
posted by hal_c_on at 11:13 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

These are cats that have been raised to know that they have a name, i.e. Punkin or Grover or Fluffy, etc.

I don't get it. How did the scientists test that these cats knew their name? If the cats don't respond to their names in their experiment, does that mean they were demonstrated to know every other cat's name instead? Sounds weak to me.
posted by Citizen Premier at 12:15 AM on September 23, 2008

I assume you've never tried to put a bunch of domesticated cats in the same room before?

Once you treated all of your wounds and got out of the room, you'd probably spend the next while dealing with angry cats rather than playing at name-calling experiments.

Unless you're talking about a bunch of cats that were raised together, in which case they'd only be likely to recognize their names if their owner was present, and now we're talking about an owner and their cats, which makes it more of an anecdote than a scientific experiment. If you want an anecdote, I just tried it on my two cats and it didn't work.

In short... anyone who deals with cats regularly would think this is a cute story - it fits the stereotype of cats as intelligent but impish creatures who exist to foil human schemes - but anyone who deals with cats regularly would find it very hard to believe.
posted by mmoncur at 4:14 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

You know, it reminds me of a genuine experiment that was published in Science (last year?) about a very smart border collie called Rico. He knew something like 200 toys, by name, which he would fetch on command. So researchers put ten items in a room, 9 of which he knew, and told him to fetch the tenth one that he didn't. Two thirds of the time, he would get the right toy, indicating a certain level of deductive reasoning usually not seen in people until they're about 3, and never seen in dogs.

This hypothetical cat experiment has a similar sense of deduction about it, but as grumblebee points out, that can't be the case because the cats can't know each others names. The phenomenon itself could occur if the responding cat made some behavioural change that the other cats responded to, but I can see little scientific merit in actually trying the experiment out in the first place.
posted by kisch mokusch at 6:47 AM on September 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I read about Rico in National Geographic, but I seem to recall that the border collie who could retrieve the unnamed toy was actually his female counterpart, "Betsy" from Vienna (next page). She was found when scientists went on a hunt for dogs with similar talents to Rico.
posted by bettafish at 7:01 AM on September 23, 2008

No, Rico could do it as well. Should've probably linked to the original article in my previous comment. Abstract only, I'm afraid (unless you have sufficient privileges to):

"He inferred the names of novel items by exclusion learning and correctly retrieved those items right away as well as 4 weeks after the initial exposure."

Also, I should've written:

"...if the non-responding cat made some behavioural change that the other cats responded to..."
posted by kisch mokusch at 7:12 AM on September 23, 2008

One of my family's cats comes to anything said in a sing song voice. We tested it and he responds equally well to his name 'Shadow!' as 'Cabbage'.
posted by Phalene at 8:21 AM on September 23, 2008

I agree with hal_c_on. This sounds like a "freshman tale." There's no shortage of "Dude, this universiry killed the water powered car!!" bong fodder.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:56 AM on September 23, 2008

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