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The fascinating, feel-good psychology of Internet cat videos

The fascinating, feel-good psychology of Internet cat videos

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It's 2 p.m. You're tired, disgruntled and desk-bound. Casting about for something — anything! - to carry you to 5. Fear not, dear office drone, because there's a guaranteed mood-lifter you can indulge in at your desk. Just head on over to YouTube, place your cursor in the search box, and type ... "cat." This is, at least, my personal takeaway from a new study in a forthcoming issue of the journal Computers in Human Behavior, on what author Jessica Gall Myrick calls the "understudied" field of "online cat media."

For this paper, Myrick — an assistant professor at Indiana University and a researcher into media's emotional effects — recruited 7,000 people for a lengthy online questionnaire about when, where and why they watch cat videos. On average, her respondents watched cat videos two to three times a week, frequently on sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Buzzfeed. They tended to chance upon the videos in their social feeds, rather than seek them out specifically.

No matter the variables, however, people reported feeling more energetic, more happy and less stressed after watching a video of a cat.

"Practically," Myrick writes, "these findings ... promote the idea that viewing Internet cats may actually function as a form of digital pet therapy and/or stress relief for Internet users."

As silly and frivolous as this may seem, however, Myrick's research actually goes pretty far toward explaining why we have the Internet we do. In short, the social Web doesn't favor click bait and cat GIFs because it's inherently shallow or stupid — but because that stuff feels good.

That framework on media consumption predates Internet cat videos: It's called "mood management theory," and it was proposed by the German researcher Dolf Zillmann more than 25 years ago. People gravitate toward pieces of content, Zillmann argued, that will either (a) make them feel better or (b) maintain their current good moods.

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