This Cat Did Not Figure Out How Mirrors Work

It's cute! But not a major step forward for feline cognition.

Earlier today, Gawker posted a video of a housecat looking at itself in a mirror, slowly raising one paw and looking with wonder at its own reflection. “Smart cat figures out how mirrors work,” reads the headline. Let’s delve very deeply into a minute-long YouTube clip of a cat doing something weird!

Mirrors are used in cognitive science in a task called the “mirror self-awareness test,” or MSR test. It’s a controversial experiment, developed back in 1970 by a University of Albany psychologist named Gordon Gallup who later wrote a scholarly article called “Does Semen Have Antidepressant Properties?” The MSR test requires that an animal be given some kind of visual oddity, usually a dot or two of color, on a part of their body only visible through a mirror (often on a part of the face or head). If the animal (or human!) sees their reflection in the mirror and attempts to touch the part of their own body with the unfamiliar dot of color, that animal is judged to have demonstrated mirror self-awareness.

Very few animals pass this test. All of the great apes–humans, chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans–pass, as do some cetaceans like bottlenose dolphins and orcas (killer whales), and a few oddballs like the elephant and magpie. Some other animals demonstrate partial self-awareness–gibbons and some macaques, for example, will sometimes become confused and gesture at their faces, which does not constitute a pass of the test but does indicate that they understand that something odd is going on. A few monkey species, pigs, and corvids (crows, ravens, jays) demonstrate a similar partial understanding of the self.

Humans, interestingly, change in their perception of themselves; before the age of about 18 months, humans have either no or only partial success in the MSR test. Before 18 months, they’ll react with curiosity or avoidance.

Cats have never once demonstrated that they have any sense of self at all. Reactions of cats to being shown their reflection in a mirror vary; some will ignore the reflection, some will attempt to investigate behind the mirror to find the cat that is presumably back there, some will act wary or aggressive towards what appears to be another cat able to counteract its own gestures perfectly. This is a freaky thing, if you don’t know that it’s you in the mirror.

The cat in this video is behaving defensively, with the “anxious” posture laid out in this helpful chart of feline body language. Notice that its ears face entirely toward the “threat,” that its tail is puffed up and often pointing downwards–these are cat signals that mean “defensive aggression.” Its attack posture is kind of…not very threatening, moving slowly and warily like that, but it’s still quite clear why it’s acting the way it’s acting. It’s not waving at itself, it’s gesturing threateningly at the scary cat staring out at it from a few feet away.

The mirror test is controversial in the psychology field; there’s the problem of children or animals not caring that there’s a spot on their faces, and so providing a false negative result when they don’t bother to clean it. It’s also been theorized that the test is unfair for animals that rely more on other senses than sight. The domestic dog, for example, relies much more heavily on smell than sight.

There’s also the more philosophical problem of, what does this actually even say? Really, the only thing that it proves is the ability to recognize one’s self in a mirror. This paper argues that you can’t really extend success in the MSR test to represent full self-awareness.

Sorry, wary waving tuxedo cat. You still haven’t demonstrated self-awareness. But you are very cute.