Dr. Charles Nelson Winslow and a couple "catty" subjects

Let's face it: cats have a reputation for being, well... catty. But, is this reputation based in fact? Or, do cats have the capacity to get along?

In the 1940s, Charles Nelson Winslow looked to answer this question in a unique way — by pitting cats against each other in a game of wits. He wanted to know whether the competition would make them more aggressive, or if cats would betray their reputation and err on the side of kindness. The experiment was performed at Brooklyn College and published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology in October 1944.

Dr. Winslow was incredibly fortunate to have his experimental method documented with stunning photographs. The photographs, taken by Nina Leen, appeared in a December 1941 issue of LIFE magazine. Here, they are presented again, giving us the opportunity to revisit Dr. Winslow’s experiment in all its categorical glory.

One of Dr. Winslow's subjects

You may be wondering why Dr. Winslow wanted to study the behavior of cats. In the 1940s, much like today, most psychologists working with animal subjects preferred rats or mice. It was unusual to see cats in psychological research, and this was one of the reasons Dr. Winslow wanted to study them. He believed that in order to understand how the social behavior of humans has evolved, you have to investigate the social behavior of animals "at as many different levels as possible." He suggested that cats represent an important "intermediary" species helping bridge the gap between rodents and apes. However, Dr. Winslow noted that because scientists focus on other species "very little is known about the social behavior of cats beyond the anecdotal accounts which appear in popular books and magazines."

One of Dr. Winslow's cats learns to escape the puzzle box.

After unlatching the door, the cat exits the box and approaches the food.
Truth is, before the widespread use of rodents, cats had a critical place in the study of behavior. In the 1890s, Edward Thorndike famously used cats in his research on the "law of effect." His method involved putting cats in a puzzle box and measuring how long it took them to get out. In order to escape the box, the cat had to press levers and buttons which eventually opened a door leading to escape. Dr. Winslow decided to employ a similar method for his cats. His puzzle box required the cat to turn a lever, which opened a door and led the cat to food outside the box. Dr. Winslow trained the cats individually to ensure they all knew how to escape the box before having them compete with each other.

Dr. Winslow puts food between the two puzzle boxes

For the competition part of the experiment, Dr. Winslow used two identical puzzle boxes and loaded up each one with a cat. He then placed a lump of cat food between the two boxes. When the experimenter called "ready," the cats immediately went to work trying to unlatch the door. Either the cats would liberate themselves at the same time or one would win by releasing itself from the box before the other. However, even in cases where one cat got to the food first, the second cat arrived soon after. This resulted in a confrontation of sorts.

Two cats fighting over food

Two cats sharing food

When cats made physical contact, they showed a range of different behaviors. Dr. Winslow wrote that, "Although struggles for the small piece of food occurred in a large proportion of the trials, the number of times that the competitors shared the food without showing overt hostility were many." He found that some cats were "friendly" while others were "cocky" and "aggressive." The latter cats would growl and scratch in order to ward off their opponent. A scuffle would sometimes ensue, but the fights were brief, and Dr. Winslow reported no injuries. It was more common for one cat to back down, or for the two cats to push each other back and forth with their heads as they each struggled for a bite of food. (It should be noted that all cats were fed each day after testing.)

The experiment failed to make a clear verdict about whether cats are generally more friendly or aggressive toward one another. His results showed that pushing and fighting occurred just as often as sharing. But, failure to make a general statement about cats led Dr. Winslow to an interesting conclusion.

Dr. Winslow's cats

Dr. Winslow made it clear that not all cats were alike. Some had a friendly disposition while others were more aggressive — in other words, the cats had different personalities. At the time, this was a controversial position to take. Psychologists recognized that people have a natural tendency to misperceive human traits in nonhuman animals, and for this reason they were reluctant to accept that animals had personalities. Although the tendency to anthropomorphize was a valid concern — and it remains one today — Dr. Winslow argued that different personalities are nevertheless quite evident in animals, and that psychologists can and should pursue the topic with an open mind.

Two cats working together for food in a "cooperative pulling" experiment

A kitten looks for food in a maze

Dr. Winslow performed several other studies on the behavior of cats. In one study, he had cats race down a runway. In another, he put cats in a "cooperative pulling paradigm" where they had to work together to obtain food. Like the puzzle box experiment, these studies revealed differences in personality. Dr. Winslow reported that some cats were "altruistic," allowing their opponents to eat all the food, while others were more selfish and fought to keep the food for themselves. LIFE magazine also included a few photographs of a kitten searching for food in a maze. The details of this study remain unknown; the findings, to my knowledge, have never been published.

In the end, Dr. Winslow's cat experiments showed that some of the things that make us human, like altruism, aggression, and personality, were present in our feline ancestors before people came into existence. Therefore, even though we might think sometimes that cats act like people, really the opposite is true — sometimes people act like cats.

Read Dr. Winslow's original article on the puzzle box experiment here.

The LIFE magazine article can be found here.