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Right-Handed Cats and the Gap Theory of Curiosity

Are cats right- or left-pawed? Do they favor a paw the way we favor a hand?

If you're like me, this question made you curious. So let's leave the world of cats for a second and consider the meta-question: What kinds of things make people curious?

Psychologists have wrestled with this mystery for many years. In 1994, George Loewenstein, a behavioral economist at Carnegie Mellon, came up with a theory of curiosity. He called it the "information-gap theory." He said that curiosity is simple: It comes when we feel a gap between what we know and what we want to know. And he goes further: He said that the gap actually causes us a kind of pain — like an itch that we need to scratch. And that's where the "fire" of curiosity comes from — we are driven to fill the gap, to scratch the itch.

Notice that to create curiosity you've got to focus people's attention on the gap. For instance, there's a book called, Why Do Men Have Nipples? That's a solid question. Chances are, you don't have an immediate answer. And yet you weren't frothing with curiosity about the man-nipple-problem until the book title called attention to the gap in your knowledge. You know something: Men have nipples. You don't know something: Why. That's a gap.

Are cats right- or left-pawed? It's another information gap. You know something: People are "handed." You don't know something: Does that apply to cats, too?

And the gap creates the itch. That's why teachers, in particular, should get familiar with the information-gap theory. If students feel the itch, they'll expend effort to scratch it — and effort is a precious resource. The cat-paw mystery, for instance, can be used to teach the scientific method. Here's an experiment that teachers can assign to their students to investigate the matter.

So are cats left- or right-pawed? The consensus seems to be that, yes, any individual cat has a paw preference. Opinion is mixed about whether cats, as a species, favor one paw over another, the way that humans skew right-handed. (Although, confusingly, this Turkish study seems to imply that most cats are right-pawed.) Bottom line: If you dangle string in front of your cat, it will probably tend to favor one paw with its swats.

Here's a confession (or perhaps a testimonial for the information-gap theory): Once I started researching cat-handedness (or pawedness) I couldn't seem to stop. This is the kind of unfortunate behavior that the internet enables all too well. So here's another gratuitous information gap: How would you go about testing whether a chimp is left-handed or right-handed? (Again, notice that you'd never lose a minute of sleep worrying about this until the gap is opened, and then you start to wonder...)

Answer from William Hopkins, a psychologist at Berry College in Mount Berry, Georgia: "A common experiment he uses to test for handedness is giving a chimp a long tube with peanut butter lodged inside. If the chimp holds the tube with its left hand and probes for the peanut butter with its right hand, the animal is likely right-handed. Hopkins has found that the chimps almost always attack the peanut butter this way."

One more information gap for the road: "A study on toads found the creatures mostly used their right legs when removing a plastic balloon that researchers had wrapped around their heads." (source) Question: Where can you get the video of researchers wrapping plastic balloons around the heads of toads?

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Why Do Men Have Nipples?: Hundreds...
    Used Trade Paper $3.95
  2. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas...
    Used Hardcover $9.50

Chip and Dan Heath is the author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

2 Responses to "Right-Handed Cats and the Gap Theory of Curiosity"

    Turnip February 20th, 2007 at 8:24 pm

    Great post. Seems completely self evident once you think about it. Gee, I wonder how we could get kids to think about something other than music, sports, and dating? Maybe, just maybe, they'd be more excited in class if we acknowledged that anyone with an interest in a subject (be it from curiosity or something else) is more likely to pay attention. Some teachers must do this kind of stuff. I'd love to hear examples.

    And thanks for the info about the toad experiment. Finally, here's proof that scientific curiosity made me wrap balloons around the head of my little brother.

    Hibiscus February 22nd, 2007 at 7:29 am

    I feel humbled when I learn new things. The more I learn the more I realize that I don't know much. This information-gap theory serves as a positive feedback to the learning experience.

    I think selectivity plays a big part in our choice of which information gap to fill.

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