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08/27/2015 04:15 pm ET

The Surprising Reason Humans Love Cat Videos

When we turn to cute kitty videos we may be practicing a virtual form of animal therapy.
YouTube

Search YouTube for cat videos and you’ll find over 25 million results; that’s more than you’ll find for public figures, like Taylor Swift or Barack Obamaor even other emblems of cuteness, like human babies.

Kitties rule the Internet, thanks to our endless cultural appetite for feline films. It’s clear that we’re drawn to videos of cat being jerks or playing with babies. But why? Are we just looking for a way to put off the stuff we actually have to do, like work and taxes? Maybe not.

A forthcoming article for the journal Computers in Human Behavior presents a different possibility. Maybe, the paper theorizes, we turn to cat videos because they literally improve our mood.  

So go ahead, watch for a moment:

Do you feel better?

In the study, Jessica Gall Myrick, an assistant professor at Indiana University's Media School, recruited 6,827 people from the Facebook page of an animal advocacy group and surveyed them about pet ownership, Internet use, video consumption and their personality.

In the most interesting part of the study, Myrick asked her users to recall the last time they watched a cat video and record their mood before and after the viewing. Overwhelmingly, respondents said they felt significantly happier after watching the videos and experienced fewer negative emotions of anxiety, sadness and guilt.

In fact, after watching a cat video, people experienced a similar response to playing with a therapy cat. “Most of the literature on pet therapy shows that it reduces anxiety and can improve people’s mood,” says Myrick. “That’s basically what I found in my survey.”

In the future, Myrick speculates, pet videos could have a bona fide psychological benefit for people who live far from therapy pet options or are allergic to animals.

It all comes back to mood management theory, a concept developed in the '70s and '80s which suggests that people consume media to regulate their emotions. For example, reading something upbeat can dispel a bad feeling or maintain a positive mood, leading people to reach for something happy when they feel their emotions slipping. This might explain why, among the seemingly infinite content the Internet has spawned, sites focusing on good news (like UpWorthy) proliferate.

The study also gives clues as to why cats might be the Internet’s anointed ones. Studies have shown that introverts tend to spend more time online; they also tend to prefer cats over dogs. The survey respondents who watched cat videos most often, tended to test high in “shyness” and have lower rates of emotional stability. Basically, they might be more in need of mood regulation -- and more likely to turn to the Internet for that boost.  

But we still need more research. Self-reported data isn’t an ideal way of determining how someone was feeling in the past, even though Myrick points out that we tend to remember emotional experiences more accurately than non-emotional experiences. This study is just a small step to really understanding what all these cat videos are doing to us.

 As Myrick put it in an interview with The Huffington Post: "The survey doesn't explain why people weren't just passively consuming this media -- they were commenting, passing it along, sharing it and commenting on it. That really intrigues me." 

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