Cats Don’t Fetch, But Know Their Names As Well As Dogs, Researchers Say

A street kitten looks out from behind a panel of lights in Cyprus in 2018.

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Call a dog by his name, and his tail wags, he starts panting happily, and he showers you with love and affection.

Call a cat by his name, and… well, cats are a bit harder to read. Does the cat even know what his name is?

So researchers in Japan set out to answer the question: Can a cat understand the difference between its name and any other random word that sounds like it?

Research on cats is slim compared to research on dogs. That may be because cats can’t be bothered to participate in the experiments. But in a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, the Japanese researchers devised a way to get results whether or not the cats cared to cooperate.

Researchers conducted a series of experiments in which a person would speak four different words, and then say the cat’s name. According to the study, the words chosen were “nouns with the same length and accents as their own names.” If the cat acted differently when it heard its name, the scientists would know that the cat could distinguish its own name from other words.

The reason for saying four words before the name was to “habituate” the cats — or get them accustomed to hearing words spoken. Cats often move their heads or ears when hearing words spoken, but that response diminished after four words. Only then was it time to say the name — and see how the cats responded.

Researchers conducted several versions of the experiment, all held at the cat’s home, with the owner out of view. In one version, researchers would play a recording of the owner saying the four words with a 15-second pause between each, followed by the cat’s name. In another version, an unfamiliar voice would say the words and the name. Sometimes the words weren’t just nouns, but the names of other cats that lived in the house.

In any case, the results were clear: Most of the cats moved their head or ears in response to hearing their name. The results, researchers said, showed that the cats could identify their own names among other similar words.

“We conclude that cats can discriminate the content of human utterances based on phonemic differences,” the researchers wrote. “This is the first experimental evidence showing cats’ ability to understand human verbal utterances.”

Do the cats actually understand that the name represents their identity? That part is unclear, lead study author Atsuko Saito of Sophia University in Tokyo told the Associated Press. What is clear is that the cat’s name is “salient stimulus,” the researchers said, “and may be associated with rewards, such as food, petting, and play.”

So whether or not Sprinkles identifies herself as Sprinkles, she knows that the word carries a special meaning.

Jennifer Vonk, a professor at Oakland University specializing in animal cognition, told NPR via email that she loved the study’s methodology, which didn’t require extensive training and could be done in an environment where the cats were comfortable. “I agree with the authors that it cannot tell us if cats represent their names as a label that identifies them, but it is interesting that they do attend to it as a special signal, probably associated with rewards such as food and petting,” said Vonk, who was not involved in the study.

The study found one minor exception to cats recognizing their name: cats who lived with others in a cat cafe. Those cats could distinguish their name from random nouns, but not from the names of the other cats. Researchers offered multiple possible explanations — maybe different cafe customers call their names with different intonation, or maybe customers say a cat’s name without offering a reward. “For example, if a visitor calls cat A, but cat B approaches to the visitor and cat B gets petting and treats instead of cat A,” that would “make name discrimination less relevant for these cats,” researchers wrote.

Peter Pongracz, a professor specializing in the study of animal behavior at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, said by email that the study was “very smartly designed,” while noting that the sample that actually demonstrated the “interesting results” was somewhat small.

Pongracz defended the tendency of cats to not respond when called, compared to the obedience of dogs. Dogs have been bred for millennia to be easy-to-train and responsive to humans, he said. Although cats were also domesticated long ago, humans didn’t put as much of a premium on training them to respond. “Most cats fare really well with humans by simply being cute,” Pongracz said.

If a cat is less effusive in its affection, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are individualistic or antisocial, he said; cats respond in their own way. “As the Japanese study showed, cats respond to their name with not necessarily a quick run to their owner, but maybe with a simple, subtle twitch of their ears.”

So cat lovers, take note. Even if your cat doesn’t greet you with the same ardor as a dog, he loves you just the same.

Probably.

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Stop The Presses! Newspapers Affect Us, Often In Ways We Don’t Realize

A copy of the final edition of the Rocky Mountain News sits in a newspaper box on a street corner in Denver, Colorado.

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“Fake news” is a phrase that may seem specific to our particular moment and time in American history.

But Columbia University Professor Andie Tucher says fake news is deeply rooted in American journalism.

In 1690, British officials forced the first newspaper in North America to shut down after it fabricated information. Nineteenth-century newspapers often didn’t agree on basic facts. In covering a lurid murder in 1836, two major papers in New York City offered wildly differing perspectives on the case.

“They both looked at the same crime and had entirely different interpretations based on what they thought their readers would prefer to hear,” says Tucher, who researches the history of fake news. Different newspapers had different audiences, so journalists catered to the tastes and sympathies of their particular readerships.

The debate over this approach continues across the media landscape today. And it often masks a larger question that persists in American journalism: Should reporters think of their readers and listeners as consumers, or as citizens?

This week on Hidden Brain, we explore this tension at the heart of journalism. And we’ll consider another thorny question: when nobody wants to pay for the press, does someone ultimately foot the bill?

These days there are plenty of ways to pay little—or nothing—to read the news. Millions of Americans have simply decided they don’t need a subscription to their local newspaper.

But new research suggests this strategy may have costs in the long run. That’s because newspapers are not like most things we purchase. If we decide not to buy a watch or a cappuccino, we save money. But if we decide not to pay for a police department, we might save money in the short run, but end up paying more in the long run.

Whereas most of us treat newspapers like consumer products, new research from Paul Gao, Chang Lee, and Dermot Murphy suggests that they might be more like police departments. Gao, Lee, and Murphy looked at how newspaper closures might affect the cost of borrowing in local governments. What they found is a price tag that may give many taxpayers sticker shock.

Additional Resources

Andie Tucher writes about the sensationalist 19th-century press in Froth and Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America’s First Mass Medium.

“Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance”by Paul Gao, Chang Lee, and Dermot Murphy, forthcoming in the Journal of Financial Economics

“The Effect of Newspaper Entry and Exit on Electoral Politics” by Matthew Gentzkow, Jesse M. Shapiro, and Michael Sinkinson in American Economic Review

“The Afterlife of Electronics” series by I-News

Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Jennifer Schmidt, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain.

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In Major Shift, Mormon Church Rolls Back Controversial Policies Toward LGBT Members

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Thursday that it will no longer consider people in same-sex marriages to be apostates. Here, a pride flag flies in front of the Historic Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City as part of a 2015 protest of the church’s LGBT policies.

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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced on Thursday that it was reversing its controversial 2015 policy that classified people in same-sex marriages as “apostates.” The Mormon church had also barred the children of such marriages from blessing or baptism until age 18.

The change was attributed to President Dallin Oaks, and the church said it was intended to “help affected families” and “to reduce the hate and contention so common today.”

Children of parents who identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender may now be blessed as infants and baptized.

The 2015 policy had divided the church, and many members felt it punished children. The children of such marriages could only be baptized once they turned 18, and to do so they needed to move out of the household and disavow same-sex cohabitation and marriage. In protest, at least 1,000 Mormons showed up in Salt Lake City to formally resign their membership.

The move may be seen as loosening a highly restrictive approach to its LGBT members, but the church reiterated that it considers same-sex marriage by a member to be “a serious transgression.”

“While we cannot change the Lord’s doctrine, we want our members and our policies to be considerate of those struggling with the challenges of mortality,” the church said in its message, released during a general conference leadership session of the First Presidency in Salt Lake City.

A press release issued by the church attributed the policy change to “continuing revelation.”

The church said that going forward, “immoral conduct in heterosexual or homosexual relationships will be treated in the same way.”

But some took issue with that line, as the LDS church does not recognize same-sex marriage as being the same as a heterosexual marriage, which it calls “eternal marriage.”

“[If] homosexual sex within marriage is wrong and heterosexual sex within marriage is great, we’re not treating ‘immoral conduct in heterosexual or homosexual relationships…in the same way,’ ” as one person noted on Twitter.

WOW. The PoX got majorly walked back — which is FANTASTIC — although I’ll point out that if homosexual sex within marriage is wrong and heterosexual sex within marriage is great, we’re not treating “immoral conduct in heterosexual or homosexual relationships…in the same way” pic.twitter.com/A8Ly89z1cE

— jaclyn (@j_n_foster) April 4, 2019

The move constitutes a major policy shift, one The Salt Lake Tribune called “stunning.”

The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBT young people, said it welcomes any faith group’s public commitment to treat the LGBTQ community fairly and equally.

“[T]his statement by the LDS Church to change course is a move in the right direction that will make a real difference in the lives of LGBTQ Mormons,” said Sam Brinton, who leads the group’s advocacy and government affairs. “We hear from LGBTQ young people in crisis every day who struggle to reconcile being part of both the LGBTQ and faith communities, and decisions to end policies of exclusion can help LGBTQ youth feel seen, loved, and less alone.”

On Twitter, there was an outpouring of all kinds regarding the change in policy. Some LGBT members thought it was a sign of progress and hope.

“That is how LGBTQ Equality will work in the church; nothing, a glimmer, and then all at once the sun will be up & we will wonder how on Earth we ever saw anything different This is a wonderful day to be alive!!!” wrote Calvin Burke, who is gay and a student at Brigham Young University, which is operated by the LDS church.

Today is a wonderful surprise. I believe in & look forward to more wonderful surprises in the future

I know there will come a point in my life when I will stand with my fellow Saints & be able to say that I have not been denied any blessings now or in Eternity because I am gay.

— calvin burke! (@calvinjburke) April 4, 2019

Some wrote of the pain that the policy had caused.

“When this policy came out I stood on the conference center with my mother. She looked around and said, ‘My family worked to build this and it should belong to all of them.’ She broke down crying and has since left the church,” Braidan Weeks tweeted. “The pain that has already happened can’t be undone. I hope that the church truly wants to heal with the communities of Utah. Because even those of us that are no longer members helped build the church to what it is. We care about this state and its people. Cheers to hope.”

The church says the new policies are being sent to its leaders worldwide and will be included in online updates to its handbook.

In the church’s news release, President Henry Eyring said that “we need the Lord’s direction to meet the changing circumstances, and He has guided changes in practice and policy through the history of the Church.”

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Trump To Recommend Pizza Magnate Herman Cain For Fed Post

Former Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain addresses the Americans for Prosperity Presidential Forum on Feb. 25, 2012, in Troy, Mich. President Trump says he plans to nominate Cain to a vacant spot on the Federal Reserve Board.

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President Trump said he wants to appoint former Godfather’s Pizza CEO and Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain to the Federal Reserve Board.

“I find Herman to be an outstanding person,” Trump told reporters during an Oval Office appearance with the vice premier of China on Thursday. “I would think he would do very well there.”

Cain, who served as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, ran unsuccessfully for president during the 2012 election cycle. He achieved notoriety with his “9-9-9” tax plan, but dropped out of the race after allegations that he sexually harassed women and cheated on his wife — allegations Cain denied in 2011.

Trump suggested those old claims would not disqualify Cain from a Fed post.

“He’s doing some pre-checking now and I would imagine he’d be in great shape,” the president said.

Cain has criticized Federal Reserve policies in the past, suggesting in a 2012 Wall Street Journal column that the U.S. should return to the gold standard.

Trump has announced plans to fill a second vacancy on the Fed board with another critic, Stephen Moore, who has echoed the president’s own complaints that the Fed stifled economic growth by raising interest rates last year.

Moore, a conservative commentator at the Heritage Foundation, has drawn fire from those who say he’s overly partisan and lacks the economic credentials for a Fed post. The IRS is also seeking to collect more than $75,000 in back taxes from Moore, who insists he doesn’t owe the government any money.

Neither Moore nor Cain has officially been nominated for the Federal Reserve Board.

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The China Corruption Crackdown: Sincere Or Cynical?

China's President Xi Jinping may have dialed down cyberattacks because of a deal with the U.S., or as part of his own moves inside China, or both. Later, though, they crept back up ag

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Peter Lorentzen is an economist at the University of San Francisco. He spoke with Cardiff Garcia about a paper he wrote on the effects of the Chinese government crackdown on corruption — and whether it was an attempt by Xi Jinping to consolidate his authority or a sincere effort to make the Chinese government bureaucracy work better.

Music by Drop Electric. Find us: Twitter/ Facebook.

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