What do you imagine if you hear the word “psychopath”? Chances are, the associations that come to mind are things like “violent”, “criminal”, “in cold blood”, or “serial killer”. Most people will imagine a human when they think of a psychopath, and almost all psychological research on psychopathy has focused on humans.
This leaves an important question open: Can animals also be psychopaths?
A new study, now published in the Personality Research Journal, focused on answering this question for cats (Evans et al., 2021).
A model for psychopathy
To begin characterizing psychopathy in cats, researcher Rebecca Evans from the University of Liverpool in the UK and her team used a popular model of psychopathy in humans: the triarchical model of psychopathy by Patrick et al. (2009).
The model assumes that psychopaths are characterized by three main factors:
- Audacity: Psychopaths are often immune to stress and show low levels of fear in situations that others would find very frightening. Unlike other people, psychopaths do not avoid such frightening situations.
- Disinhibition: Psychopaths are unable to control their emotions and impulses like other people do and are more likely to act on their impulses even if they are socially unacceptable.
- Wickedness: Psychopaths don’t empathize when others are sad or in pain, and they have no problem hurting others in cold blood to achieve their goals.
Investigating Psychopathy in Cats
The study consisted of three parts. In the first part, the researchers designed a questionnaire for cat owners based on the triarchical model of psychopathy. In the second part, they gave this questionnaire to 1,496 cat owners as well as two other questionnaires, one on the personality of the cat and the other on the quality of the cat-owner relationship. In the third part, 30 cat owners completed the questionnaire and the associations between the questionnaire results and the cat’s daily activities were assessed.
The results of the study showed that the three aspects of psychopathy in humans suggested in the triarchical model of psychopathy can also be applied to cats. Cats can be daring (for example, climbing very high on trees or houses without showing any fear), disinhibition (not obeying commands such as not jumping on the table and eating their own food. owners when told to stay on the ground) and meanness (without provocation). assault on owner or other animals).
Interestingly, cats have shown two additional dimensions of psychopathy that have not been seen in humans: hostility to animals and hostility to humans.
This reflects that some cats may be aggressive towards pets such as other cats and dogs while being friendly with their owners, while other cats show no aggression towards other animals but are aggressive towards their owners (eg. example, by scratching or biting them).
Importantly, research has shown that not all aspects of psychopathy in cats are negative for the cat-owner relationship. Malice (eg, being aggressive towards the owner) and daring (eg, showing dangerous behavior such as climbing a large tree) predicted lower owner satisfaction in their relationship with their cat. In contrast, hostility to animals and disinhibition predicted greater owner satisfaction with their relationship with their cat.
Thus, some owners have actually interpreted behaviors associated with these aspects of psychopathy as positive. This makes sense because they can be related to the cat seeking to get closer to its owner. For example, if a cat shows signs of uninhibition by hopping on the table during dinner, some owners may find it cute. Additionally, hostility to animals can be related to spending less time with other animals and more time with the owner, which can be viewed as positive.
Overall, the study by Evans et al. (2021) suggests that psychopathy in cats exists and has more factors than in humans – important knowledge for cat owners and vets!