Curious Jordy

How to win friends and influence people (by copying your cat)

Intro: why I love pets

I was playing with a friend’s cats this weekend when I figured out why I love pets.

I love pets because they want my love. They *need* my love.

Giving my cat Josephine things that *she* needs (food, water, cuddling) makes *me* feel good.  Essentially, I have a certain need, personally, which is the need to feel needed, to love something which appreciates my love, and that’s why I got Josephine in the first place. I’ve put in considerable time, energy, and money setting up a situation where I am needed by this cat, just so I can take of her and scratch my own itch.

We think our pets need us… but in a certain sense, because they’re so good at scratching that itch of ours, we need them more.

Pets are way better at reinforcement than (most) humans

One thing that I’ve noticed over the years is that there seem to be a lot of people who have a hard time showing affection to their loved ones: family, friends, and (to a lesser extent) lovers.

And yet these same people have no problem showing affection to their pets.  Why is this?

My theory is simple: people love showing affection to their pets because their pets make it easy and enjoyable for them to do so.

Pets are really good at expressing gratitude and happiness (purring, tail wagging).  When I do Behavior X (pet the cat) and something good happens (cat starts purring), I am motivated to keep doing Behavior X. Borrowing some terms from BJ Fogg’s behavior model, the “pet the cat” behavior happens because three things are present simultaneously:

  1. I have the ability to pet the cat (my hands are free)
  2. I have the motivation to pet the cat (she’s cute, I get rewarded when she starts to purr)
  3. I’m triggered to pet the cat (she rubs against my leg and meows)

You might say that pets are very good at training humans to satisfy their needs using this behavior model. They can’t affect our ability much, but they can certainly motivate and trigger us to do desired behavior.

In contrast, we humans on the whole have a really hard time using reinforcement in productive ways.

When someone gives us a compliment, more often than not, we dismiss it or we get embarrassed. Or in a classic example, a mother will complain “We never see you!” when her child comes home to visit. The desired behavior was punished (complaining), instead of being positively reinforced (“It’s so good to see you! Here, I cooked you your favorite meal.”) And they wonder why their child never comes to visit!

We must realize that we are ALWAYS giving people feedback about their actions towards us, whether we mean to or not. And, even if they’re not consciously aware of it, the way people behave towards us in the future is strongly influenced by this feedback.

The good news is, you CAN increase the amount of love/affection/good vibes in your life by setting up the right feedback loops and reinforcing the right behaviors.

For example, the next time somebody gives you a genuine compliment, try genuinely thanking them.  It can be very hard to do, in our society of false modesty, but it really is worth it, and it does get easier the more you practice.

Thanking someone for a compliment is an example of expressing gratitude, which is one of the simplest and most powerful reinforcement techniques. (Think of my cat, and how effective she is training me by expressing gratitude by purring.)

Your turn

Are there things you could do to make it easier or more enjoyable for people to love you, to show affection to you? Have you tried expressing gratitude, showing appreciation, or using other techniques?  Please leave me a comment, I’d love to hear about it.


Want to further explore the concepts in this post? I recommend:

  • BJ Fogg’s behavior model:
  • Wikipedia article on reinforcement
  • Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor