Grumpy Cat: The psychology behind cat videos

Grumpy Cat is an Internet phenomenon. A simple 56-second video of a cat being stroked has become a million dollar business with T-shirts, books and so on; there is even talk of a Hollywood film deal. And at the recent South by South West media conference in Texas, there were lengthy queues to meet the cat in the flesh.

But how come cats are so appealing on the web? What is it about cat videos that has made them such a hugely popular part of YouTube? The answers are much more basic than you might think.

Cats have facial properties which are roughly the same, regardless of the specific breed. Unlike dogs, all cats share the same basic facial structures – big eyes and small noses. And this means they have a unique appeal to humans – they remind us of new-born babies. Human infants have the same facial shape – big eyes and small noses, out of proportion to adult faces.

Now you might think that we can spot the difference between a baby’s face and that of our feline friends. But it turns out that facial recognition is remarkably blunt. We use just a small array of measures to decide the differences between faces. Indeed, new-born babies – who have primitive visual systems anyway – can tell the difference between their mum and the midwife, based on a series of blobs representing eyes and noses. Human beings are not as advanced in determining faces as we might like to consciously think. As a result, cat faces remind us of new-born babies at a subconscious level. Clearly we can see they are different, consciously. But our subconscious brain is already sending out signals “this one needs caring for”. When we see a cat picture our brain gets a boost of positive hormones making our internal systems go “aah”. Our protective and nurturing nature comes into play. Cat videos trigger those basic human instincts; we can’t help ourselves.

There are two other features of cat videos that make them particularly appealing too. Generally they are fun, not ordinary. There is something quirky, odd, funny or interesting about the videos. In the original Grumpy Cat video (above) the ordinariness of the stroking becomes funny and quirky when the cat widens its eyes. That appeals to our sense of fun. Consistent research on online videos shows that the number one reason we like them is fun or humour. We use these videos to lighten our day, to give a quick break between the tedium of work.

And there is another reason we like fun videos – it gives us something to share. Our natural instincts for sharing things make us want to share anything that makes other people feel good. If we make other people feel good, they end up liking us. Sharing fun and quirky things makes other people like us, hence we like to share them a lot.

Combine the fun aspect of cat videos with their appeal to our caring nature and you have a perfect combination of elements allowing people to share something good which reflects well on us individually.

It is a lesson to anyone in business. Appeal to fundamental instincts of human nature and you can harness a significant degree of support.

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