Give me what I want, or I shall rub you a second time!
August 12, 2010 9:10 AM   Subscribe

How did cats learn to be so manipulative?

Mars does it. Argento does it. Most cat owners have experienced their cat rubbing his or her body on their legs when they want something.

My question is, how did cats "learn" that this behavior would (hopefully) get us silly humans to give in to them? Is it some evolutionary behavior? It must have come from somewhere.

Of course, I'm assuming cats in general do this and my guys just aren't exceptionally weird.
posted by elder18 to Pets & Animals (32 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It's Pavlov's dog.. except replace the human with the cat, and the dog with the human.
posted by pwally at 9:15 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have always assumed cats transferred how they behave as kittens with their mothers to their human companions -- particularly based on what I have seen of how cats that continue to live with their mothers behave, soliciting affection and grooming (my parents have mother/daughter cats).
posted by aught at 9:15 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cats are marking you with their scent glands, located in their mouths, the base of their tail, and elsewhere. Big cats do this to trees to mark their territory, so I'm guessing it's instinctive, and they're not expecting the tree to give them affection. Housecats likewise may not even initially intend it as "give me affection/food" but since we give it to them, we reinforce that behavior.

p.s. thanks for following the rules. they're adorable.
posted by desjardins at 9:15 AM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've always heard that this is a territorial marking behavior -- my guess is that most cats do this automatically to things/people that they are fond of. Then, they learn that when they do this to people, people tend to pay them attention and give them things (petting, treats, etc.). The end result -- cats rubbing their scent glands all over you when they want some attention or a treat.
posted by kataclysm at 9:15 AM on August 12, 2010

I don't think it can be called "manipulative." The rubbing behavior (at meal time) is just a way of saying "I'm hungry and wondering why you are not opening up the cat food as you usually do at this time." It's a way of getting your attention and to assume otherwise is anthropomorphizing.

Rubbing against you is also (not so much at meal times) a way of scenting you and marking you as included in his/her territory.
posted by idest at 9:16 AM on August 12, 2010

This is really a prime example of natural selection. Cats that rubbed, or showed affection, were probably cared for far better and so lived longer and propagated more than cats that didn't. I suspect your answer is somewhere there.
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:16 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

CBC Radio's Ideas show did an hour-long doc last night that might have had some answers for you (we had to turn it off because the caterwauling was ruining the family dinner conversation...not to mention we don't like cats).

Sometimes they archive shows. You could check their website.
posted by ecourbanist at 9:17 AM on August 12, 2010

Oh, yeah, I totally forgot. Scent glands in the cheeks. Still, I bet most humans interpreted it as affection and my theory still stands.

But, yeah, from the cat's points of view, they're just marking you.
posted by InsanePenguin at 9:18 AM on August 12, 2010

My feral cats (born feral, live out of my barn) rub on each other when they want attention or are excited. Definitely not something they learned from people.
posted by galadriel at 9:19 AM on August 12, 2010

It's pretty much what all cats do, even in the wild. Watch a documentary on big cats and youll see rubbing. It's both the usual mammalian tactile bonding and making a shared scent.
posted by stavrogin at 9:19 AM on August 12, 2010

Big cats, little cats - a video on how housecat behavior is like big cat behavior. (best line: "I believe MY cat came from Satan!") Scent marking at 1:18.
posted by desjardins at 9:19 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, say my cats want to go outside (I take them out for supervised trips to the fenced backyard one or twice a day). They'll paw at the doorknob, rub their whole side against me, and then repeat.

It seems that this is a clear indication that they think that if they show me affection, I'll open the damn door. Somehow this behavior has been created and strengthened over time, and while my cats are pretty smart, they had to have learned affection = getting what I want somewhere.
posted by elder18 at 9:21 AM on August 12, 2010

It seems you are interested in various kinds of reinforcement, and more generally in operant conditioning.

Somehow this behavior has been created and strengthened over time, and while my cats are pretty smart, they had to have learned affection = getting what I want somewhere.

They learned this from you (or whomever else has owned them) - you have unconsciously trained them by giving them nice things when they show you "affection" (or what you interpret as affection).
posted by muddgirl at 9:24 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's a Guardian article about research into how cats can purr at a frequency that mimic's a human baby's cry.

My cats (1, 2, 3) are just really, really good at being persistent (with the purring, the meowing, the knocking stuff off of tables, etc.) until it's either feed them or go insane. I think they're just evil super geniuses. (Cat #1 used to whap at the blinds by my head until I would wake up. I would open an eye and look at him and he'd be whapping while looking right at me and then whap a few more times just to make sure I got the hint.)
posted by Kimberly at 9:28 AM on August 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've always heard that it starts as territorial marking behavior, too. What is more curious to me is the fact that humans have developed to find this endearing - sure, it makes sense that the cat will keep doing it since we reward the behavior with food/attention, but why does having a cat wipe his face/side/butt on us elicit "awws" in the first place?
posted by DingoMutt at 9:30 AM on August 12, 2010

You have this entirely backwards.

Cats do things, things which are often random. We respond to them. The cats repeat this action because this random action, only loosely correlated with something (proximity and either attacking or whining), while we have imbued it with meaning — they only recognize success.

Don't get me wrong, I love cats. However, when a friend's cat gets up on an office chair and begins to bap-bap-bap me on the shoulder or head every so often, I'm the one who has figured out that the cat wants the chair to be slowly spun so it can then attempt to claw me the living hell out of me on every spin.

It only takes some very light modification of either cat-kitten behaviors and play-attack behaviors for big-headed primates, used to trying to figure out what everyone else in the monkey tribe intends, to meet them about seven-eighths of the way. We're shaping our behavior around the cats. They aren't manipulating us, we're shaping ourselves to them.
posted by adipocere at 9:36 AM on August 12, 2010

What adipocere said. How did the cats become so manipulative? YOU taught them. You didn't realize it when you were doing it.

Just like I have taught my dog to sit next to the cabinet where I keep the treats.

Me: "Now who's a good boy? Who's a good boy? Yes, it's you! You're a good boy! Oh come here and let me rub your ears! Who's a good boy? OK, here's a treat."

posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:45 AM on August 12, 2010 [16 favorites]

Cats come to expect things for certain actions. They do learn.

A cat that yowls at the food dish then gets a treat will do it again next time. If the first thing you do when you get home is feed the cat, then it will learn to wait at the door around about the time you caome home and be underfoot until their bowl hits the floor. If, on the other hand, you don't want to trip over Felix with the groceries, don't feed the cats immediately. Wait a half hour or until you finish dinner or whatever. The cats will quickly pickup from you when to bug you for feeding.

Cats can also learn from watching each other. One of our girls has become much more vocal over the past year as she's picked up that very vocal her housemate gets loads of attention whenever she wants it.

My theory is that cats learn certain behaviours result in things they want, so they keep doing them. If rubbing you gets positive attention, they will continue to do it. If you push them away every time they rub you, I bet you would find that they stop that and try to find some other behaviour that worked.
posted by bonehead at 9:54 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

It seems that this is a clear indication that they think that if they show me affection, I'll open the damn door.

They don't think that. They're responding to something that seems to work most of the time, whether for getting food or getting outside. That's all. Really, they are NOT whispering together about what an easy mark you are.
posted by idest at 9:58 AM on August 12, 2010

Response by poster: I'm familiar with conditioning, and perhaps I've reinforced their behavior.

It also seems that, based on what some people above have said about cats behaving this way naturally. Perhaps what I'm witnessing is a combination of natural behavior and what they've learned over time as far as how to get what they want.

I know for a fact that they learn from each other. For instance, both of them are now experts at opening our bedroom door which does not close all the way and they both know the doorknob is the thing that opens the door.

So, yes, they seem to be a stew of natural and learned behaviors. How cute!
posted by elder18 at 10:08 AM on August 12, 2010

There are some cats who like to grab you around the leg as you walk in the door, just be happy you don't have one of those... At least she has very furry paws so it doesn't hurt.
posted by meepmeow at 10:18 AM on August 12, 2010

They can be manipulative.

Hungry cats trick owners with baby cry mimicry.
"Cat owners will know the feeling. Your pet is purring loudly, demanding to be fed, and isn't going to give up until it gets what it wants. What most doting owners won't realise is that the cat is using an acoustic ruse.

According to Karen McComb of the University of Sussex, UK, domestic cats hide a plaintive cry within their purrs that both irritates owners and appeals to their nurturing instincts.

The team recorded the purrs of 10 different cats when they were soliciting food, and when they were purring in a different context. Fifty people who were asked to rate the purrs on how pleasant and urgent they sounded consistently rated the 'solicitation purrs' as more urgent and less pleasant. Cat owners were especially good at distinguishing between the two kinds of purring.

... The louder this high-frequency element, the more urgent and less pleasant the purr was rated. Cats may be exploiting 'innate tendencies in humans to respond to cry-like sounds in the context of nurturing offspring", McComb says.'"
Video: Experience the acoustic tricks of cats.
posted by ericb at 10:23 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

They'll paw at the doorknob, rub their whole side against me, and then repeat.

It seems that this is a clear indication that they think that if they show me affection, I'll open the damn door.

You're ascribing "affection" to the action of rubbing.

From what I've seen, it's more of something that cats do when they're anticipating something or otherwise excited. I've seen them rub on other cats, on posts, on food bowls, etc. I don't think this is something they're doing in order to fake affection; I think it's just something cats *do*, and you're interpreting it as affection.
posted by galadriel at 10:47 AM on August 12, 2010

Why are they manipulative? Who said they were manipulative? I think we have ways to project our own fears and insecurities onto cats. Cats are predators, it's the way they were born. They are smart, they are inventive and they are ruthless when it comes to their prey. All of these qualities are inherent to their feline nature. There is nothing wrong with any of those qualities and there is nothing negative about wanting to eat when you're hungry, drink when you're thirsty and play when you're bored. Cats will use what they were born with to achieve those things in the quickest, most efficient way. And that's pretty much the whole story about cats in 400 words or less.
posted by watercarrier at 11:26 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

A cat isn't manipulating, because manipulation is the underhanded behaviour of someone who could ask for what they wanted in plain language, or just go and get it themselves. A cat doesn't speak English and doesn't have thumbs, and mice may not be sufficient for a healthy diet.

When my cat gestures towards the food cupboard and goes "waah", she is asking me in as plain language as she can muster to give her some dinner. What do you want her to do, steal my credit card and phone her order in?

Things like scent-rubbing don't start out as affectionate (although I do think that scent-marking a human being connotes a relationship that's more affectionate than not), but they do become so when humans interpret them that way, and then the cat learns to see them the same way. Similarly, syllables like mama or dada are nothing but meaningless baby-babble until the proud parents ascribe meaning to them and begin interacting with the baby in such a way that language develops.
posted by tel3path at 12:03 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

A really good place to start is domesticated silver foxes in Russia. These foxes have been bred for temperament - a process that in 50 years has mimicked a much longer period of domestication of cats.

Physically, these foxes are much cuter. They want to interact more with humans. They are more responsive.

With continued selective breeding they, too would do some of things cats would, because they would be bred for purpose: cuter, more infant-like etc. It might seem like manipulation, but competition for food and/or affection is hard wired into many animals.
posted by MuffinMan at 1:08 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cats didn't learn anything. Cats that were accidentally more successful at looking and behaving in ways humans preferred (fluffy, soft, soothing purr, useful rodent killer, etc.) outbred cats that were less successful at this stuff.
posted by pracowity at 1:11 PM on August 12, 2010

I've had a couple cats that I've definitely found to be what I would describe as manipulative. I do not think it's as innocent as some other people seem to. In my experience, they can really find everything that bugs you in order to get what they want, whether it's for you to get out of bed, or to play with them, or whatever. One cat will chew on everything plastic bag-like in sight if she thinks you're not paying enough attention to her. Another one starts knocking things off high shelves if he wants you to get out of bed. If that doesn't work, he'll chew on a phone cord.

And they know they are annoying you. I have no doubt about this. Cats feel annoyance and they know how to inspire it in others when they choose to do so, and they can certainly tell when you're annoyed by what they're doing. As for that rubbing thing, that's different because it's not really annoying - I think it's probably equal parts coaxing you and some sort of natural expression of what they're feeling.

And I don't get that purring study. I remember when that came out. I've never had a cat that purred because they wanted food.
posted by wondermouse at 1:14 PM on August 12, 2010

wondermouse: the cat I had growing up would often jump on the chair next to me at the dinner table, stare at the food, and purr. If you ignored, she'd purr louder. If you ignored her then, she'd jump on the table and make a beeline for your plate and whatever item had caught her eye.

Although if we had fried chicken, we had to lock her in the bedroom because she'd skip the sitting-on-the-chair-and-purring parts, and leap straight for the chicken.
posted by telophase at 2:00 PM on August 12, 2010

I have no studies to cite which directly address the issue I'm going to raise, much less support my point of view, but, as I've said before around here, I think cats could be (probably are, honestly) engaging in a much a more sophisticated chemical campaign than mere scent-marking.

I think they're dosing us with oxytocin.

The cat, in this scenario, secretes oxytocin in its saliva (where it evolved initially to promote milk release in the mother cat), the saliva is deposited onto cat dander during grooming, then the cat does deposit some dander on you by rubbing, but I think the major route of administration is by airborne particle, which is greatly facilitated by rubbing, because electrostatic effects cause the oxytocin-containing particles of dander to fly off into the air.

You breathe them in, you feel greater empathy as a result, and you give the cat what you know it wants.
posted by jamjam at 2:49 PM on August 12, 2010

Frequently my cat would know when I walked into my bathroom and would race from two or three rooms away to go to her litter box in the adjacent laundry. Then she would come into the bathroom, sit and watch me. Afterwards she would jump onto the toilet seat, walk around and meow. It seemed to me that she understood my "litterbox" and wanted it for herself.
posted by Anitanola at 7:56 PM on August 12, 2010

Here is a recent ScienceDaily account of one of many experiments which demonstrate greater empathy in test subjects following administration of oxytocin-containing nasal spray.

Here is a micrograph of cat hair to compare with a micrograph of human hair. Note that the cat hair has tiny spurs which can break off (a number have broken off in the micrograph) to form dander, whereas the human hairs are relatively smooth.
posted by jamjam at 8:14 PM on August 12, 2010

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