Boxing cats, pride and the observer effect


I was doing some research for the Film and Lit class that I teach and discovered that one of the earliest recordings is a cat video, or cat film to be more precise. Recorded at Thomas Edison’s Black Maria Studio with Edison’s strip kinetograph camera, Boxing Cats, made in 1894, is the first cat video. This made me extremely happy. I will admit it. Cat videos make me smile. I’ve been thinking about why.

One researcher suggests that people watch cat videos for emotional uplift, in other words, pet therapy with out the litter box. Another researcher suggests that because cats don’t care or acknowledge that they are being recorded but people who watch them feel that they are constantly being observed,  the observers enjoy the experience of watching something unencumbered by scrutiny. The researchers inference is that we don’t like the idea being watched ourselves but we like the idea of watching something or someone who doesn’t know they are being watched. Maybe people post candid video and watch reality tv, because, as Hitchcock suggested with Rear Window we are voyeurs at heart with cinema satisfying that need to watch other people’s lives. Years after Hitchcock, but at the very beginning of reality television, The Truman Show suggests that audiences have grown tired of the neatness of contrived stories and want to observe someone who doesn’t know he is being watched. Maybe someone should try shooting some scenes from Rear Window or Truman Show with cats. I would watch that.

I’m a little bit obsessed with the observer effect, not only as a theory in quantum physics but also in philosophy and psychology. The idea is that the act of observing a behavior changes the behavior. In physics this generally applies to measurement and the effect of the instruments used to measure on  particles, but in psychology it has to do with the expectations of the observer and with the awareness of the subject that he or she is being observed. Does knowing you are being watched changes what you do?

With some training a dog’s behavior is predictable, at least when humans are watching. The observer has a definite effect on the subject. Not so much with cats. Unlike dogs, cats normally won’t perform on cue. In the Boxing Cats film the cats wear shoulder harnesses to hold on the gloves and there’s a human ref there to keep them in the ring. The cats themselves seem pretty intent on their little sparring match. I suspect this is something they did for sport without the gloves. The fact the the film is only 22 seconds long may have to do with resources and technology. All the films were very short. But it keeping the cats in the ring might have been a factor.

So why do I like cat videos? After spending years with cats, I think they are aware of being observed but they just don’t care whether anyone is watching or not. In fact, if cats engage affectionately with humans it’s because they choose to engage. Dogs either can be trained to respond as expected or love the attention so much they can’t help themselves. This difference in response makes cats endearing to some people and infuriating to others. Cats give off the vibe that they have autonomy and can exercise control over their environment rather than letting their environment control them. Cat videos either portray cats winning at life in this way or portray what happens when the environment betrays them and mayhem occurs. Observing that mayhem is somehow satisfying and funny and endearing to me. It’s like discovering someone unapproachable is actually a real human being underneath the facade of pride and control.

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