Cats as Masters of Negative Reinforcement
I’m not a cat person. I’ve owned several cats — and even liked a few of them, but for the most part cats just strike me as terribly annoying creatures. Now research from the Centre for Mammal Vocal Communication Research validates my suspicion. ScienceBlog reports:
The rather crafty felines motivate people to fill their food dishes by sending something of a mixed signal: an urgent cry or meowing sound embedded within an otherwise pleasant purr. The result is a call that humans generally find annoyingly difficult to ignore.
“The embedding of a cry within a call that we normally associate with contentment is quite a subtle means of eliciting a response,” said Karen McComb of the University of Sussex. “Solicitation purring is probably more acceptable to humans than overt meowing, which is likely to get cats ejected from the bedroom.” She suggests that this form of cat communication sends a subliminal sort of message, tapping into an inherent sensitivity that humans and other mammals have to cues relevant in the context of nurturing their offspring.
In a nutshell McComb is saying that cats employ a calculating form of negative reinforcement to train humans. They repeat an annoying sound that we find it difficult to ignore until we feed them, pet them, let them in/out or otherwise bend to their will. This represents a classic – and highly effective – form of negative reinforcement training.
Negative reinforcement is a tool vilified – and misunderstood – by many dog trainers. According to Negative Reinforcement University:
The concept of Negative Reinforcement is difficult to teach and learn because of the word negative. Negative Reinforcement is often confused with Punishment. They are very different, however.
Negative Reinforcement strengthens a behavior because a negative condition is stopped or avoided as a consequence of the behavior.
Punishment, on the other hand, weakens a behavior because a negative condition is introduced or experienced as a consequence of the behavior.
Animals have an innate understaing of negative reinforcement. They use it with each other all the time to establish and protect territory, maintain individual space, protect food resources and to teach their young. Negative reinforcement teaches your dog to lay in the shade instead of the sun on a hot day. And if you’re luck, it’s the tool your puppy’s mother and littermates used to teach him bite inhibition. Animals are masters in the subtle, effective use of negative reinforcement – and cats are obviously no exception.
“We found that the crucial factor determining the urgency and pleasantness ratings that purrs received was an unusual high-frequency element — reminiscent of a cry or meow — embedded within the naturally low-pitched purr,” McComb said. “Human participants in our experiments judged purrs with high levels of this element to be particularly urgent and unpleasant.” When the team re-synthesised the recorded purrs to remove the embedded cry, leaving all else unchanged, the urgency ratings for those calls decreased significantly.
The key to cats’ success in training humans is their ability to combine high and low frequency tones together in a way that annoys us just enough to want to make it go away - but not quite to much that we want to make them go away.