I’m not willing to jump on some bandwagons. You won’t find me stockpiling toilet paper. I definitely won’t be buying a mask to wear which probably wouldn’t fit properly, would make me touch my face more, might give me a false sense of security as I rub my eyes after touching a door handle, and definitely has the potential to prevent a medical professional who actually needs that mask from getting it. I also plan to pick up Chinese food tonight from a locally owned restaurant because I want to support them while others show how (unconsciously) racist we still are. But the one bandwagon I’m happy to jump on is the sharing and viewing of cute animal photos to make myself and others feel a sense of peace and comfort. So what is the mysterious power of cute animals online?
There’s an actual theory that people will look for media that helps them to get rid of negative emotional states or maintain positive states. This is called mood management theory (MMT) (Oliver, 2003, as cited by Myrick, 2015). This makes sense to me anecdotally as I distinctly remember having the twitter feed Emergency Kittens on the equivalent of speed dial while developing a series of very heavy training modules involving suicide and police shootings.
On the other hand, who hasn’t fallen into some sort of internet hole when you’re in a procrastinating mood. “Oh, I just need to check my cats’ Instagram (yes, my cats have Instagram: @arielandtempest) before I clean the bathroom.” I justify this action because I use this account to a) post photos of my cats of course, but b) to promote local adoptable animals from various rescue organizations, thereby serving a social purpose (at least, that’s what I tell myself). Reinecke et al (2014) found that entertainment media is often used to procrastinate after a particularly draining day (as cited in Myrick, 2015).
Myrick (2015) surveyed Internet users regarding their cat viewing behaviours and responses and found that generally people don’t go online looking for cats, but come across them and then start viewing them. The respondents report that viewing Internet cats decreases their negative emotions and increase their positive ones. Another interesting finding is that many reported increased energy after viewing cats, indicating that there may be a restorative value to taking these small breaks. On the downside, people also reported that they sometimes feel guilty for viewing the Internet cats because it is a form of procrastination.
O’Meara (2014) suggests that one of the pleasures of cat videos is that the cats are blissfully unaware of being recorded. They behave as they would camera or no, whereas dogs are more likely to be aware of and responding to the human behind the camera. This strikes me, because I often look at my cats and wish that I could have their freedom to do what they want whether that is napping in a weird position, joining their human in the bathroom because they have no societally imposed boundaries on the subject (of course as a human I actually have no desire to do this), or zooming around the house when everyone else is attempting to sleep.
On the neuroscience side, Hayama et al (2016) compared the brain activation of pet owners and non-pet owners using a functional MRI scan. They found that pet owners and attraction to animals both correlated with activation of particular areas of the brain associated with the visual attention network (basically this is how the brain selects relevant visual information based on signals from other areas of the brain that bias what we pay attention to). So people who like pets are more likely to pay attention and experience increased activation when looking at photos of pets.
So what does all this mean for why we’re sharing animal photos during the COVID-19 pandemic? People are anxious. We don’t have all the answers and we don’t really deal with that super well (see our response to climate change as an example). At the same time, we do (at least kind of) understand things like flu (although you’re still more likely to catch the flu so please keep washing your hands with soap frequently and for a minimum of 20 seconds even when this pandemic starts to decline). We understand the idea of a disease that passes between people (although measles is still significantly more dangerous and contagious and people who refuse to get their kids vaccinated for measles are counting the days until we get a COVID-19 vaccine). But compared to something like climate change or even seasonal flu people are acknowledging that there is risk associated with COVID-19 and this is stressing them out. As a response, people are looking for ways to deal with this stress and while normal advice of spending time with people seems like a pretty bad plan at the moment, spending a little extra time on social media so that you can practice social distancing while still enjoying spying on someone else (in this case our pets) is a welcome diversion.
Here are a few of my favourite animal links:
Anne Marie Darling @amdar1ing did an amazing job of connecting cats with graphs of the possible paths the COVID-19 outbreak might take
Bunsen @bunsenbernerbmd is the “Twitter Science Dog” with a podcast did a great description of why the virus is a burr
Then just for cuteness:
my own @arielandtempest
and one more photo of my cats for good measure