Saturday, September 15, 2012

Magical Thinking in Cats

The psychologists have given us the concept of magical thinking, the idea (neurosis) that one can change things by performing completely unrelated acts. For instance, sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder may attempt to control their environment and emotions through pointless enumeration, counting every step or every crack, or useless repetition, washing their hands 20 times or checking that the lights are off 15 times. Every religious act also involves magical thinking. As an example, one may pray for rain or dance for rain. Neither prayer nor dance has any real, measurable effect on the meteorological variables that determine precipitation, and yet humans have long done both as a means of swaying the universe to their purpose.

It has been generally supposed that only humans exhibit magical thinking, as it has been generally assumed that only humans think. But my cat has shown beyond doubt that the phenomenon is not restricted to H. sapiens.

Several years ago, I installed a cat door in the bottom corner of the sliding screen door that leads to the deck. A push with the head is all it takes for the cat to let herself in or out. For the first 6 weeks or so, she loved it as much as I did; she could go in and out dozens of times a day without bothering me. Then the weather changed, and I started closing the glass door at sundown. My poor cat, who was about 13 at the time, got very confused. Sometimes her door was there and sometimes it wasn’t. The mere sight of the rectangle in the corner wasn’t enough to convince her the door was available, and I would remind her how it worked, lifting it to allow her to walk through.

As the weeks passed, I noticed my cat doing something that puzzled me. She would approach the door and stand in front of the rectangle in the corner. Then she would turn and walk completely around the easy chair nearest the door before approaching the door again. She then either “recalled” how to open it and went out or took another turn or two around the chair first. As fall came on and the screen door was available less and less, her peregrinations got more elaborate and moved farther afield. Now the journey involved two easy chairs and an ottoman and three or four repetitions before she would approach the door and attempt to exit. When I had watched her do this on numerous occasions, I realized that somehow she had decided that walking around the furniture made the door open. How she came to this completely erroneous conclusion is a mystery.

Even after the cat door had been in place for several years, the odd behavior not only continued, it became even more elaborate. Every year the cat greeted the appearance of her special door with joy and used it readily, even though it was only available on warm, sunny days at first. After a few weeks, something happened in her head, and she began demanding that I open the screen door for her, which I refused to do (I can be stubborn, too). It’s possible she simply realized the human wait staff had gotten lazy and was trying to make me do my job, which is to serve her every need. I don’t think that’s the case, or not entirely, because soon after she stopped using her door freely, she started walking around the furniture again. First one chair, then two, and the journey continued to lengthen as the weeks went by, eventually encompassing every piece of furniture in the living room area and two to five repetitions, all to propitiate the door gods and let her get outside.

What’s really interesting here is that she exhibited no such behavior on the other side of the door. On the deck side, she would occasionally sit and wait for me to open it, but if I ignored her long enough, she would go through without any propitiatory circumambulations. Was she, at 17, senile? Confused? Just bloody stubborn? Or praying on her paws?

If anyone has an animal that exhibits similar behavior, I’d love to hear about it.


This is article 30 in a continuing series. © 2012 Christine C. Janson

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