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Lydia Martin

Martin, Lydia. (2013, May). Decoding the Meow: The effects of experience on interpreting the behavioral context of cat vocalizations. 
Mentor: Dr. Anne Marie Brady

Abstract

Based on prior research which showed that humans could infer correct behavioral contexts when they listened to specific categories of dog barks, I decided to look for evidence of similar referentiality between different categories of domestic cat meows. I observed that cats would alter their vocalizations within contexts based on the amount of attention they received from their owners. I conducted a survey using pre-recorded cat meows from different contexts and asked human participants to classify meows into five different categories (affiliative, agonistic, distress, food-related, and obstacle). I also asked participants to rate the pleasantness of meows from the same cat based on whether they were given with the owner directing attention towards the cat (HR) or ignoring the cat (NR). When it came to categorizing cat meows, participants performed with greater accuracy if they had owned one or more cats before, but only accurately categorized two types of meows, agonistic and obstacle, higher than chance level. Participants were more accurate at categorizing meows if they reported an affinity for cats. Participants found HR meows more pleasant-sounding than NR meows about 60% of the time, with no relationship to experience with cats. The results of the categorization task contradict previous research on referentiality in cat meows, and seem to indicate that humans have a limited capacity to learn to recognize them aurally. However, the results of the HR-NR task indicate that cats may use their vocalizations to shape human behavior within meow bouts.


Read the paper (download the pdf)