The fascinating, feel-good psychology of Internet cat videos
It's 2 p.m. You're tired, disgruntled and deskbound. Casting about for something -- anything! -- to carry you to 5, you contemplate a coffee or an office walk-around.
But not so fast, dear office drone, because there's a guaranteed mood-lifter you can indulge in at your desk. Just head on over to YouTube, place your cursor in the search box, and type ... "cat."
This is, at least, my personal take-away from a new study in a forthcoming issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior, on what author Jessica Gall Myrick calls the "understudied" field of "online cat media."
"Consumption of online cat-related media deserves empirical attention," Myrick writes, "because, as the news accounts suggest, Internet users spend a significant amount of time consuming cat-related media, some of that while they are supposed to be doing other tasks like working or studying."
Yep, been there.
For this paper, Myrick -- an assistant professor at Indiana University and a researcher into media's emotional effects -- recruited 7,000 people for a lengthy online questionnaire about when, where and why they watch cat videos.
On average, her respondents watched cat videos two to three times a week, frequently on sites such as Facebook, YouTube and BuzzFeed. They tended to chance upon the videos in their social feeds, rather than seek them out specifically. They were more likely to watch and like cat videos if they owned, or had ever owned, a cat; if they were shy; or if, predictably, they spent lots of time online.
No matter the personal variables, however, people reported feeling more energetic, more happy and less stressed after watching a video of a cat -- even when they felt guilty about it because they were supposed to be doing something else.
"Practically," Myrick writes, "these findings ... promote the idea that viewing Internet cats may actually function as a form of digital pet therapy and/or stress relief for Internet users."
Digital pet therapy? Don't mind if I do!
As silly and frivolous as this may seem, however (particularly since cats have become the shorthand for Internet frivolity), Myrick's research actually goes pretty far toward explaining why we have the Internet we do. In short, the social Web doesn't favor clickbait and cat GIFs because it's inherently shallow or stupid -- but because that stuff feels good.
Incidentally, that framework on media consumption predates Internet cat videos: It's called "mood management theory," and it was proposed by the German researcher Dolf Zillmann more than 25 years ago. People gravitate toward pieces of content, Zillman argued, that will either (a) make them feel better or (b) maintain their current good moods. It explains, per previous research, why unhappy people generally choose more upbeat music, for instance, and why women experiencing PMS watch more TV comedies than other women do.
Could MMT also explain the rise of BuzzFeed and Upworthy and Emergency Pugs? Or the Internet's apparent preference for memes and GIFs and goats over far more serious subjects?
Those are questions for future research, of course. But -- ugh, sigh -- more research means more work.
• Dewey writes The Post's The Intersect web channel covering digital and Internet culture.