Meowtivated reasoning

Just imagine how many songbirds this precious kitten slaughtered while he lived feral.

Just imagine how many songbirds this precious kitten slaughtered while he lived feral. The look in his eyes suggests it was a lot.

Switching things up a little here — let’s talk about cats. Five years ago this morning, a feral kitten wandered into our yard and got the neighbors’ dog in enough of a tizzy for me to go outside to see what was up. He was malnourished, filthy, and untagged; soon enough he became our cat, Thunder. Every year or so, when a little news boomlet happens about a new study of the number of small animals killed by loose cats, I think about how his first four months or so went. He’s an inside cat now, but he loves being outside in the harness that he hates. We also have inside birds (because we are dumb) who have their own room (because we are smart), and he loves them too, in a way. I don’t want to think that he and the feral neighborhood cats that look so much like him are destroying the local wildlife ecosystem, but I keep hearing that they are.

It turns out that I’m not the only biased cognition scholar who has thought about this from the pro-cat perspective. Dan Kahan wrote a few years ago on this topic, noting that his initial reaction to a 2013 study was heavy skepticism that led him to dive into primary literature on the topic. Interestingly, he found that his biases were basically right, and that the tendency for these largely unsupported studies to frequently emerge was a big failure of science communication.

But they also present a very interesting test possibility for the influence of social identity-relevant information sources. Cat lovers, and especially those with a highly central cat-related social identity aspect, are likely to react negatively and with disbelief to a study like this. But what if it’s presented in a positive frame by a cat-focused site along the lines of The Conscious Cat? Or a negative frame, for that matter? Compared with an identity-neutral source, does the identity-relevant source make information and opinion uptake more likely, including the case of counter-bias views? I did a study similar to this last year related to vaccine beliefs, and it didn’t really work that well for reasons that I think had a lot to do with the experimental stimuli. This could be a cleaner way to get at the same identity-media mechanism, and it’s something I have in my queue for the spring.


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