Monday, December 14, 2015

Why Are Cats Scared of Cucumbers?

Have you seen the video of cats’ terrified responses to cucumbers? No?! Then check this out:

This hilarious video has led many people to try this on their own cats… to varying degrees of success. And it has led to some curious questions: Why are these cats so terrified of a cucumber? And why isn’t my cat?

The fear of something specific (like a cucumber) can either be innate (as in, you’re born with it) or learned. For many animal species, it would make sense to be born with a natural fear of something that can kill you the first time you encounter it, like a steep drop, being submerged under water, or a venomous snake. Some of these things can be so dangerous that an animal with a fear of anything that even resembles it may have a higher chance of surviving long enough to produce its own fearful babies some day. So maybe these cats have an innate fear of snakes that has caused them to respond in this hilarious way to anything that resembles a snake… like a cucumber?

But if cats have an innate fear of snakes, why don’t they all respond to cucumbers this way?

Sometimes fears appear to be innate, when they are actually learned. For example, in 2009, researchers Judy DeLoache and Vanessa LoBue at the University of Virginia explored whether the fear of snakes is innate in human babies with a series of three experiments.

In the first experiment, Judy and Vanessa showed 9- and 10-month old babies silent films of snakes and other animals and they measured how long the babies looked at each type of film. Presumably, a baby will be more vigilant of and spend more time looking at something they are scared of. They found that the babies responded exactly the same towards the snake films than to the films of other animals.

Next, the experimenters showed the babies the films of either a snake or another animal again. However, this time they played the audio of a person sounding either happy or frightened along with the video. The babies looked at the non-snake animal videos the same amount regardless of whether the audio sounded happy or scared. However, the babies looked at the snake videos longer if the audio sounded scared than if the audio sounded happy.

In the third experiment, the experimenters repeated this pairing of audio with visuals, but this time they used still pictures of snakes and non-snake animals instead of videos. This time, the babies did not react differently to the snake or non-snake animal pictures depending on if the audio sounded happy or scared.

This shows that, at least for people, we don’t have an innate fear of snakes, but we do have an innate tendency to develop a fear of snakes if we are exposed to the right combination of hearing someone being afraid and seeing a moving snake. In other words, some fears are more contagious than others. And this isn’t just true for people: a study of rhesus monkeys found that baby monkeys raised by parents that were afraid of snakes only developed a fear of snakes themselves if they observed their parents acting fearful in the presence of a real or toy snake. So perhaps, the cats in this cucumber video saw or heard someone being fearful of something cucumber-like (or snake-like) when they were young... Or maybe they were just surprised by something sneaking up on them while they were eating.

In any case, don’t be too bummed if this hasn’t worked on your cat… Maybe try it on your friends instead!

Want to know more? Check these out:

DeLoache, J., & LoBue, V. (2009). The narrow fellow in the grass: human infants associate snakes and fear Developmental Science, 12 (1), 201-207 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00753.x

Mineka, S., Davidson, M., Cook, M., & Keir, R. (1984). Observational conditioning of snake fear in rhesus monkeys. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 93 (4), 355-372 DOI: 10.1037/0021-843X.93.4.355

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