Fun with Psychology–and Cats

I find psychology fascinating. It can help us to find clever and unusual ways of solving intractable problems. Take the story of Sheriff Low, for example. [Defunct link removed.] The reoffense rate in his little town has significantly dropped since he put the inmates all in embarrassing pink jumpsuits, sheets, and so on. People want to make sure they stay out of jail because they can’t stand the thought of wearing pink. Now that’s clever! (Link found on FARK.)

One of my favorite ways to use psychology is to apply it to two of my favorite subjects–roleplaying and writing. Many of my articles on those two subjects incorporate elements of psychology to address various issues. On the roleplaying side, there are articles like tension without character death and “Expectations, Conditioning, and Your Game” parts 1 and 2, examples and rules of thumb. On the writing side there are articles such as criticism and learning to write and surviving the rewrite process. All of these apply basic psychology to help shape the roleplaying or writing experience into something more enjoyable, and to help you get what you want out of it.

Another application of psychology that not as many people think of is: cats. I really picked this one up from Phil Maggitti’s Guide to a Well-Behaved Cat. Now, I’m about to go on a bit of a long-winded jaunt here, so grab your cup of coffee.


Cats are not people. This should be obvious, I know, but sometimes I think it isn’t. One of the best points Maggitti makes in his book (which, IMO, should be required reading for anyone who wants to get a cat) is that cats aren’t truly “domesticated,” even though we think of them as such. This is an important key to understanding them and living happily with them. Many of their instincts and habits are formed by thousands of years of living in the wild, and it’s your responsibility to help them find a way to adapt to living with people if you want to keep them in your home–you can’t expect them to magically do that on their own.

Maggitti clearly understands psychology and applies it well to cats. He discusses such psychological concepts as bridging stimuli and intermittent reinforcement in the training of your cat. He also explains the various reasons why scolding tends not to work.

There’s no point in getting angry at a cat for doing something that instinct tells it is the right thing to do. Clawing behaviors often indicate territory issues or a feeling of being threatened. Instead of yelling at your cat and making it feel even more threatened, how about reading this book to help you figure out what the underlying issue is so you can fix it?

I remember not that long ago listening to someone gripe in a very hurt and angry tone about his cat scratching him. A number of things ran through my head as he did so:

  • Many cats learn to scratch people because we teach them to do so. We think it’s all cute and adorable to let them play with our hands and feet with their teeth and claws when they’re kittens, but we don’t realize we’re teaching them habits that will stick with them when they’re older and more dangerous. (Yes, dangerous. Remember, a cat is in some part still a wild animal.)
  • Cats have claws. They use them to get traction in addition to other things. It’s inevitable that they will eventually claw you. Many cat owners don’t mind the occasional scratch because they understand that’s the price you pay for having cats. If you aren’t willing to pay that price, then it’s your responsibility to keep their claws trimmed (which isn’t really all that difficult–again, Maggitti’s book can teach you how) or use something like SoftPaws claw caps.
  • If a cat isn’t playing when they scratch you, isn’t simply trying to get traction, and wasn’t startled, then you might have made it feel threatened in some way–in which case you’re the one you should be holding responsible for that clawing, not the cat. I had a housemate once who didn’t seem to understand that the cats were not there for his convenience. He would try to hold one of them whether or not she wanted to be held, even when we told him repeatedly to put her down. Well, funny thing, one day when he didn’t put her down when she wanted him to, she left a vicious scratch right across his chest. I really couldn’t muster up any sympathy for him on that one–he earned it. (As a side note, simply by turning being held into such a compulsory thing, he made her afraid of being held. After he moved out, she became a lap cat within just two weeks. Psychology in action.)

So there was this guy, talking about declawing the cat (which is a horrible idea for so many reasons), when he could have used a little responsibility (spending the time to trim claws, for example) and psychology (working to teach the cat not to claw) to achieve very good results instead. Turning to declawing is saying you can’t bother to take care of your cat the right way, so you’re going to maim it instead. If this is the case, do both yourself and the cat a favor and don’t get a cat. Go volunteer at a shelter instead if you want to spend time around cats but don’t have the patience to handle them well 24 hours a day.

We do our best to use psychology when our cats have problems. After spending some time two summers ago in cramped quarters while we looked for a new house after moving to Maryland, our cats had gained a tendency to fight with each other that they hadn’t had before. It makes sense–there simply wasn’t enough territory for two cats in that hotel suite. So, the steps we took were territorial ones. Their new home has plenty of room for them. When that wasn’t enough to undo the problem we bought a second litter box, since one of the cats is fairly territorial about the litter box. We also bought a big piece of cat furniture with lots of levels and such and put it in front of their favorite window–it gives them more places to sleep and play without having to fight each other over them.

This has had a very positive effect. These changes are easy, and they had an immediate and obvious benefit. Before them we had to separate the cats into separate rooms, on average, a little less than once a day. Now we virtually never have to do that.

All with the help of a little psychology.

So next time you’re angry with your pet’s behavior, your children’s behavior, your players’ behavior in your roleplaying game, or your editor’s behavior after you turn in a manuscript, don’t fly off the handle. Apply a bit of psychology instead.

Posted in Cats, Gaming, News & Musings, Writing Tagged with: , , , , ,

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