Study Suggests Cats Like Illusory Boxes as Much as Real Ones

A study just published in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science offers insight into the “If I fits, I sits” phenomenon amongst cats. The authors of the study—who sourced their data from citizen scientists—say that domestic cats may have a tendency to sit in illusory boxes just as much as they do real ones. A finding that could hint at the way our mysterious feline friends perceive the world.

Ars Technica reported on the study, which was inspired, in part, by a four-year-old viral Twitter hashtag: #CatSquares. The hashtag called for users to post pictures of their cats sitting in virtual boxes; ones consisting of only lines of tape on the ground.

Gabriella Smith, a graduate student at Hunter College (CUNY) in New York City, developed the idea for the study. Smith teamed up with Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere for the project, as the latter researcher was already studying dogs’ susceptibility to visual illusions. (The eureka moment for Smith came while she was playing with her cat after going to one of Byosiere’s lectures.)

For their study, the authors asked citizen scientists to conduct a series of trials on their cats. The trials involved marking out Kanizsa illusions in scientists’ homes to see if they intrigued cats like normal boxes do. After marking out the illusions—which use Pac-Man-like shapes to connect invisible lines with their “mouths” to give a sense of contours—the citizen scientists then recorded instances of their cats sitting or standing within one of them for more than three seconds.

Of the 30 cats who completed all the study’s trials, nine selected at least one of the illusions within the first five minutes of entering a room. Far fewer, on the contrary, selected the control patterns, which did not form invisible squares. The cats also selected the Kanizsa illusions just as often as they did complete squares consisting of tape markings. “It’s the presence of the contours, either in the Kanizsa square or in the real square, that causes cats to sit inside, rather than the presence of shapes on the floor,” Smith told Ars.

Unfortunately, the study has some significant drawbacks. The sample size of 30 cats, for example, isn’t large enough to give confidence in these findings on their own. (Attrition rates are a common problem with citizen scientists.) If larger studies bear out these results, however, it could mean cats perceive illusory contours the way we do. Something we’ll be able to confirm definitively once both we and our cats receive our Neuralink brain chips.

A black fluffy cat sitting in a box

Robert Couse-Baker

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