Did you know that statistically, black cats in shelters are less likely to be adopted than other color cats? Or that even more tragically, a higher proportion of black cats are euthanized than any other? Sad those these facts are, they’re also true. It seems that just like people, cats are all too often judged by their color. Several years ago, a team of researchers from the University of California, Berkeley surveyed 189 people to see how a cat’s color affected their owner’s judgement. As news.berkeley.edu reports, the study found, somewhat shockingly, that people were more likely to assign positive personality traits to orange cats and less favorable ones to white and tortoiseshell ones. Orange cats were generally regarded as ‘friendly’, white cats were more likely to be seen as ‘aloof’, and tortoiseshell cats were typecast as ‘intolerant’.
Of course, anyone with a lick of sense could tell you that the color of a cat’s coat has zero effect on its personality. But people are wont to have their prejudices, even when it comes to cats. Unfortunately, the consequences of those prejudices can have some very unpleasant consequences. “There is no evidence that the perceived differences between different colored cats exist, but there are serious repercussions for cats if people believe that some cat colors are friendlier than others,” Mikel Delgado, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at UC Berkeley, has said.
And he’s not wrong. But if even white and tortoiseshell cats are deemed to be less pleasant than their orange counterparts, why is it that black cats in particular are proving to have the hardest time in getting adopted? Is it the way they’re portrayed in the media? Superstition? Of something else entirely? To find out the answer once and for all, a team of researchers led by Haylie D. Jones and Christian L. Hart have taken a deep dive into ‘black cat syndrome’. Their conclusions, published under ‘Black Cat Bias: Prevalence and Predictors’ by Sage Journals, are illuminating.
To begin their research, Hart and Jones formed a study group of 101 people. Each member of the group was asked to complete an online study in which they were presented with 20 images of cats. Although the cats in each image were different, all were shown with a neutral facial expression and pose. Some of the cats were black, some weren’t. For each cat, the group were asked to rate how friendly or aggressive they seemed. They were also asked to comment on how willing they’d be to adopt the cat, and how well they could read their expression. Finally, they were asked various questions to establish certain facts about their own personalities, beliefs, and attitudes.
When Jones and Hart came to study the results of the individual surveys, they found something interesting. Going into the study, they’d expected to find a difference in how adoptable people perceived the black cats compared to the other cats pictured. But according to the results, there wasn’t one. There was, however, enough evidence elsewhere to show that the ‘black cat bias’ was alive and kicking in the group. Perhaps the group weren’t overtly aware of their prejudice (not to the extent of saying they wouldn’t adopt a black cat, in any case), but the prejudice was most definitely at play.
As psychologytoday.com notes, the results of the study prompted Jones and Hart to draw three conclusions, all of which help illuminate why black cats experience such a hard time in finding a forever home.
- Black cats are considered unfriendly – Regardless of how well intentioned you are, you’re not likely to adopt a cat if you think it’s unfriendly or even aggressive. Unfortunately, black cats don’t actually need to be either of those two things for people to believe they are. Of the 101 people studied by Jones and Hart, most people rated the black cats as less friendly and more aggressive than the non-black cats. The results tie in with previous studies that suggest black cats are generally considered more anti-social than other cats.
- Superstitions are at work – If you thought science had replaced superstition, think again. Some folk have clearly never got over their fear of walking under a ladder… or crossing paths with a black cat. While comparing the personality tests completed by the group participants, Hart and Jones found that the more superstitions the individual, the more likely they were to rate the black cats as unfriendly, more aggressive, and less adoptable. They were also more inclined to claim that the expressions of the black cats were hard to read.
- People think black cats are hard to read – Black cats have a reputation for being mysterious. There’s nothing wrong with being mysterious, of course, but there is something decidedly wrong with people attributing personality traits on the basis of color. But apparently, they do. According to the results of Jones and Hart’s study, more people were inclined to say they couldn’t read the expression of the black cats than the non black cats. Those that rated a cat’s expression as unreadable were also more likely to write it off as unfriendly, aggressive, and unadoptable.
What It All Means
Obviously, the study has its limitations. None of the participants were actively seeking a cat to adopt, so their answers regarding the adoptability of certain cats over others may not be fully representative of real-life adopters. After all, it’s all too easy to say one thing and do another. But nonetheless, it does throw up some interesting questions. Even more interestingly, it backs up what shelters have been saying for years. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people do seem to judge a cat by its coat color, and that coat color plays a vital part in whether a potential adopter takes a kitty home or not. Where we go from here, who knows? But the good news is that as more and more of us become aware of black cat bias, the closer we come to eliminating it. As with any prejudice, the first step is to acknowledge it. The second step is to understand it. Once we do that, fighting it becomes easy. For the sake of all the unwanted black cats in the world, let’s hope so anyway.