When Popular Media Use Sensationalist Headlines to Report on Scientific Studies

Misleading headlines and lazy journalism hiss me off.

A friend of mine posted a link to the story from The Telegraph pictured above. She was pretty hissed off about the article and the misleading headline: “Cats do not need their owners, scientists conclude.”

Let’s note right here that I purposefully am not providing a link to the article, because I also have my claws out.

The article describes a study that seemed to show that cats exhibit no signs of separation anxiety, do not “attach” themselves to humans or seek out their people for comfort when stressed. 

However, if you read the actual study (there was a link to it in the article, and I encourage everyone to go to the source when you read something that doesn’t add up), you can see the problems with the study set up. It’s based on a particular scientific definition of “secure attachment,” that humans and chimps and dogs (all social, pack-type animals) seek comfort from strange situations by running to their companion / caregiver / loved one—whomever they are supposedly attached to. Cats, when stressed, have different behaviors. We all know this. When scared or hurt, cats tend to hide, for example.

Trying to apply a test designed for predatory animals or those who are inherently part of a social group, to a species that is not pack-centric, and is not just predator but also prey is faulty. The test involved bringing cats to a strange room, where both cat parent and a stranger were seated. There were cat toys and a place for kitty to hide. Sometimes the owner entered or left the room and sometimes the stranger entered or left the room. The cats’ behavior was observed.

Amusingly (to me) the study notes that “Any cat subjects who remained in the hiding place throughout the experimental testing procedures were removed from the data analysis, since they provided no useful data.” Folks, I actually believe that is data staring you in the face. (Or hiding under a chair in this case, but that’s another story.)

The authors of the study do acknowledge that the test may not be the best assessment, saying essentially that it might not work for cats, but there’s no other test developed, so that’s what they used.  

From the study abstract: “Although cats vocalised more when the owner rather the stranger left the cat with the other individual, there was no other evidence consistent with the interpretation of the bond between a cat and its owner meeting the requirements of a secure attachment. These results are consistent with the view that adult cats are typically quite autonomous, even in their social relationships, and not necessarily dependent on others to provide a sense of security and safety. It is concluded that alternative methods need to be developed to characterise the normal psychological features of the cat-owner bond.”

Note the scientific language: “…meeting the requirements of a secure attachment.” “Secure attachment,” the way it has been defined for humans. And dogs. 

And also notice that there is an acknowledgement that alternative methods might be able to better characterize the cat-human bond. All makes sense to me.

The study conclusion says, “It seems that generally cats do not appear to attach to owners as a focus of safety and security in the same way that dogs do or children do towards their parents as demonstrated by their behaviour in a strange situation test. However, cats do appear to have a different relationship with their owner compared to a stranger, but the extent to which this is conditioned as a result of incidental interactions or built upon the fulfilment of an intrinsic psychological social need is unknown.”

The conclusion really is nothing more than cats don’t always run to their humans (or seek social comfort for that matter) when scared. They bolt to the nearest hiding spot, providing “no useful data.” 

Nowhere does the study say that cats don’t need their people, or don’t bond. 

What irritates me is when the non-scientific media like a magazine or newspaper takes a study and creates a headline and/or a story that doesn’t show the entire picture. Worse, the headline is designed to be a version of clickbait. It’s meant to tick off cat lovers, and therefore generate a whole bunch of comments. And online media depend on the clicks and shares to get eyeballs, and more eyeballs means more ad revenue.

Stories that generate outrage get more engagement.

It’s all done on purpose. The problem is, people will read into that headline and cat lovers will get angry, and people who don’t like cats will have their prejudices reinforced. A false controversy is created.

This is at best, sloppy writing, and at worse, irresponsible journalism. The last half of the article did quote cat behaviorists that refute some of what was said earlier, but not everybody reads to the end of the story. More likely a headline writer (not the author) wrote the sensational headline.

The story is carefully crafted not to inform so much as to make money.

This is one of my pet peeves. Because not only does it mislead, but it also denigrates science. No, scientists did not prove that cats don’t need people. But true science is built on provable, repeatable experiments and tests. It relies on agreed-upon definitions. And sometimes we have to prove the obvious as a step toward gaining clarity. In this case, we have evidence that our cats bond with us, but they do so in ways that are different than how dogs and humans connect. We can learn from the study that there is a need to explore other ways to gain knowledge about the human-cat bond.

And we have also confirmed that in stressful situations, some cats will hide, and deprive scientists of “useful data.” Sounds about right.

Yes, cats do love their people. Just ask Elsa Clair.

Yes, cats do love their people. Just ask Elsa Clair.


8 Comments on "When Popular Media Use Sensationalist Headlines to Report on Scientific Studies"

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  1. clickbait indeed. what struck me was that they clearly stated they didn’t think the test was working but there was no other test so they did it anyhow. ummm….maybe come up with a better test? cats are not dogs people. science should not be saying – well this is the best we could do even if it isn’t working. of course there is also irresponsible journalism, but what else seems to be new with some of them looking for headline grabbing rather than doing the actual work.

  2. jan says:

    This is my pet peeve too. I think headlne writers often don’t read beyond opening sentences.

  3. Bernadette says:

    It is indeed clickbait! Just like all the bird killing cat overpopulation articles have been.

    Years ago people thought cats were unintelligent, and dogs more intelligent than cats, because cats did not run through a maze to get a prize. Then people realized there were different types of intelligence among sentient beings, and a cat finding a safe, protected spot in a maze to sit and listen for predators and other dangers was indeed intelligent in protecting its own life. Once again, because cats basically aren’t like dogs, they lose points again. And I don’t get how cats provided them with “no data”. If they did not react to any stimulus that is certainly data.

  4. suzanprincess says:

    Thank you, Susan, for your well-placed, beautifully written wrath!

    I’m in total agreement with your every word, and just as ticked off as you are at the temerity of the article writer and the laziness of the headline composer. I really hate, yes hate, stuff that purports to have some literary or scientific value but really has neither. (Yes, steam is pouring from my ears and cats are hiding in fright, poor babies.)

  5. Mary McNeil says:

    As usual, those of us who live with cats know there is much more depth to the relationship. I’m still skeptical of the study that says that cats cannot taste “sweet.” Oh ? Sit down with some ice cream and a cat and see what ensues.
    And, as an ex-journalist, I know that the headline writer often doesn’t do more than skim the story, usually in a hurry on deadline. This has been a plague since the writer was not also the editor and publisher back around the time of B. Franklin.

  6. Sandy Weinstein says:

    so true. i get emails from even reliable companies that do this as well. it is so frustrating, reminds me of the robo calls.

  7. da tabbies o trout towne says:

    guyz….stopping bye with a hi de hoe
    copy N paste said letz give it a go
    wanna say HI & leeve a good werd
    de food gurlz werkz a big bass terd
    we hope this findz ewe doin swell
    santaz comin ring de Christmas bell
    sorree we haz ta uze copee N paste
    we gotta sneekz a round with out haste
    happee week if we due knot get bak
    N joy two day N eatz a snak ♥♥☺☺☺

    we haz been bad bad BAD vizaturrz late lee
    but itz KNOT R FAULT…..itz de food gurlz

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