Study: Cats Can Recognize, Respond To Human Facial Expressions

Researchers learned that cats responded more positively when their owners were smiling.

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The cats in the study varied their behaviors based on whether their owners smiled or frowned. Via Luís Pedro/Flickr
The cats in the study varied their behaviors based on whether their owners smiled or frowned. Via Luís Pedro/Flickr

It seems that, despite her perma-scowl, everyone is delighted by Grumpy Cat. We seem to be attracted to her chronically downturned mouth and eyes that say, “I’m quietly judging you.” But according to new research, cats can respond to human facial expressions and will vary their behaviors based on whether their owners are smiling or are Grumpy Humans.

Moriah Galvin and Jennifer Vonk of Oakland University studied 12 cats and their owners and discovered that the felines were more likely to display “positive behaviors” — purring, rubbing against them or climbing into their owners’ laps — if their owners were smiling, the BBC reports. When their owners frowned, the cats weren’t as quick to purr or engage with their human companions. (Interestingly, these results were specific to the cats interactions with their owners; when they were placed with strangers, the cats were just as likely to perform the positive behaviors whether the person was smiling or frowning).

“People care about whether cats really do understand and pay attention to their owners,” Vonk told the BBC. “Our work shows that they may not be as indifferent as people accuse them of being.”

"Just because you're smiling doesn't mean that I have to." Via The Official Grumpy Cat/Facebook

“Just because you’re smiling doesn’t mean that I have to.” Via The Official Grumpy Cat/Facebook

But just because the cats can recognize human facial expressions, that doesn’t mean that they’re empathizing with us. The cats might be responding positively to friendly faces because they have learned to equate smiles with rewards.

“People are more likely to spoil a cat when they are in a good mood,” the BBC points out.

So the cats are just being opportunistic? Well, that pretty much ensures that we’ll be Grumpy Cat-ing for the rest of the evening.

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