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Very Human Cats

In 1950 Dr. Jules H. Masserman, MD Psych, Associate Professor of Nervous and Mental Diseases at Northwestern University, published a highly significant article in Scientific American magazine (March issue, pp 38-43). Entitled "EXPERIMENTAL NEUROSES In which:

  1. cats learn complex patterns of behaviour

  2. are subjected to contradictory influences and

  3. develop neuroses which are relieved by psychotherapy".

Masserman’s paper sheds a great deal of light on the question of choices -- and the disastrous results of misinformed, contradictory and conflicting beliefs which are buried within our psyche. It will help the reader understand neuroses better and also alcoholism. It could enable practitioners to devize intelligent and specific programmes which rapidly solve anxiety, compulsive behaviour, neurosis and alcoholism. In fact addictive behaviour of all kinds.

The Scientific American article supplemented an earlier film "Neurosis and Alcohol: the induction and cure of alcoholism in cats" made by Masserman as part of a doctorate thesis, at the University of Indiana in 1948. Bob Ross, developer of the Power of Choice programme, saw the film in the summer of 1953, as part of a seminar on Korzybski’s General Semantics at Bard College, New York. This could be said to be the beginning of the programme proper.

Masserman’s film showed cats being made overtly neurotic: it showed the development of a wide range of symptoms from mild to severe (uninterested in normal games and sex play up to and including a case of waxy catatonia); it showed the cats being introduced to alcohol; it showed cats preferring spiked milk to plain milk; it showed cats who began each meal by lapping up a small amount of milk spiked with alcohol. And it showed some cats who would drink only spiked milk until they fell over, dead drunk, i.e. confirmed alcoholics; and finally the film showed the cats being forced or persuaded to confront the contradictory stimuli (pain or fear plus the smell of tasty food). Several different methods were shown to get the cats to face whatever it was they could not confront, ranging from brute force to gentle persuasion. Fully confronting the contradictory stimuli taught the cats that, though initially frightening, the extra stimuli were merely scary, like a roller coaster ride to a child or apprehensive adult. At that point the cats ceased to exhibit neurotic symptoms and ceased to be alcoholics. In other words, their choices improved.

The magazine article tells a fuller story. The cat experiments described by the author were performed in a glass cage. At the left end of the cage was a food box with a hinged lid. The cats quickly learned that they could lift the lid and obtain a pellet of food in the box. Provision was made for an inexhaustible supply of replacement pellets, which were automatically dropped into the box as soon as the lid was closed from the previous pellet. The cats were trained to lift the lid only in response to a signal such as the flash of a light. Later they learned to manipulate switches and set off the signals by themselves. Finally, they learned to obtain food by more complicated patterns of behaviour, such as pressing switches in various positions (fig 1).


Fig 1.

If the training of the animal was too rapid for its age and capabilities — and cats seem to vary in intelligence as much as humans do — the animal sometimes became recalcitrant, inept and resistive (a lesson here for human educators?). If however the training sessions were adjusted to the individual cat, its behaviour was efficient, well-integrated and successful. So much so, that Masserman remarked that pussy presented every appearance of a happy animal, as indicated by her eagerness, avidity for the experiment and sonorous purring while she worked for her reward.

Unfortunately, this was not to last. The scientists began to subject the cats to various frustrations. For example it was arranged that depressing the switch to summon food produced little or no reward. The animals would instead develop a tendency to push down upon other objects in the cage, or even fellow cats, in the hope that something was forthcoming.

Subject to even more stress, some cats became what Masserman termed ‘masochistic’. After being trained to accept a mild electric shock while retrieving food, the intensity of the shock was then steadily increased to 5,000 volts, yet the cat still pursued the aim of obtaining food by triggering the mechanism. Even when the food reward was discontinued, the cat would continue to hurt itself pointlessly, by pressing the switch for the ‘substitutive’ experience of a painful shock.

Cats in a group would develop hierarchies of feeding and effort. Some would compete, others behave submissively. Enterprising cats would even work together, to obtain food by cooperative actions, one triggering the switches to feed the other and then taking turn about. Interestingly, this phase usually ended in one or other cat becoming tricky and refusing to cooperate but benefitting at the expense of the other animal, which became in effect a kind of servant.

The deliberate provocation of feline neurosis was carried out by establishing a nice safe feeding routine over an extended period and then breaking it in various unpredictable ways. When pressing the reward switch the cat might be subject to a sudden startling blast of air, or an electric shock (fig. 2).


Fig 2.

The cats began to show a anxious indecision about approaching the switch. Hunger usually won in the end. But when the reward was made random, the cats became even more aberrant in behaviour. Torn between the desire for food and possible pain, but without even the certainty of food as a reward, the test animals experienced a telling crisis of CHOICES. Some cats simply caved in and sat kittenish and helpless. One cat tried to hide its head in the feed box; another tried to climb out of the cage; a third tried to shrink into the walls of the cage (fig. 3). Others displayed aspects of aggressive and anti-social behaviour, threatening or attacking other cats which approached the feeding mechanism. Physiological signs showed clear evidence of continued tension and worry. Many animals showed extreme startle reactions to various minor stimuli and became irrationally fearful of harmless sounds, light flashes and closed spaces.


Fig 3.

In short, the animals displayed the same stereotypes of anxiety, phobias, hypersensitivity, regression and psychosomatic dysfunction commonly observed in neurotic human patients. As Masserman reported, in nearly every case these neurotic patterns rapidly permeated the entire life of the cats and persisted indefinitely, EVEN AFTER THE STRESSFUL EXPERIMENTS WERE DISCONTINUED. Once maladjusted, the cats remained that way, unless treated by special ‘therapy’ procedures. The treatment, in effect, was to educate the cats that they could make effective new choices and that those conditioned by the past were no longer operative. Once assured that there nothing new to fear, the cats made a good recovery; but they seemed incapable of working out that contemporary conditions were no longer troublesome without outside help.

In one variant of the studies, animals were drugged with alcohol and experienced relief from neurotic tensions. Later given the opportunity to choose between an alcoholic and non-alcoholic drink, about half the animals developed a quite un-feline preference for spiked drinks and were happy to be in a semi-stupor. In fact in most cases the preference was so marked as to be labelled an addiction. This laboratory-induced dypsomania lasted until the animal’s underlying neurosis was relieved by the recovery therapy. Masserman observed that cats inebriated by alcohol-spiked drinks were relatively immune to emotionally traumatic experiences. It need hardly be pointed out in this context that many a human being has been know to take a ‘bracer’ before bearding the boss, flying a combat mission or getting married, and that temporary escapes of this nature often lead to chronic alcoholism (Fig. 4).


Fig 4.


One must be careful of drawing parallels with human behaviour from what Abram Maslow, founder of his own Humanistic Psychology, called derisively ‘the psychology of desperate rats’; he could see little relevance to humans in watching what animals did when starved, electrocuted, bewildered and miserable. But to the degree that humans also feel pain, confusion, bewilderment and frustration, I think it is allowable to make certain connections, where the demonstration is compelling, as in this case. The neurotic responses were so typically human that one is justified in deriving valid inferences.

What we need to do is extend the view, to make it more applicable to human psychology. It is clear that these experimenters, in the tradition set by Pavlov, looked at the animals as stimulus-response machines rather than as reasoning, thinking feeling beings, who were not quite as smart as humans. The experimenters clearly did not recognize the degree to which these animals had been worrying about whether or not to push the button. In fact the issue about just HOW intelligent the cats were is irrelevant; a human subject, similarly confined, would have had exactly the same choices as the cats. It is unlikely that most people would have shown any different response.

This brilliant and seminal investigation is presented in some detail because it is really a study about CHOICES. The fact that the experimenters didn’t see it this way is beside the point. If you put yourself in the place of the cats, it should be clear that they were not merely reacting but thinking. They faced worrying and contradictory alternatives. The cats for example became worried about whether to push the button or not and so to choose hunger or relief. It seems plain that many cats thought the air blast or shock were things to avoid, even if it meant going hungry. They made a CHOICE in this respect.

Eventually hunger caused them to try again. It drove them to re-evaluate their choices, though with no additional certainty of the outcome. Add to that the fact that the scare stimulus was random, not every time; the animals had no clues as to when they would be air-blasted or shocked; and so felt anxious all the time, BECAUSE THEY HAD NO APPARENT CHOICE IN THE MATTER.

Then to restore the animals to normal the experimenters used either persuasion or force to get the animals to experience the scary stimuli and so discover that it was not harmful. In other words, they had to be taught to establish new choices. When we look at this in terms of human experience and human dynamics the scary stimuli reminded the animals of past moments when they had been hurt. Humans too become very wary when they encounter a situation which may contain hurt. This applies at all levels and all societies and I defy researchers to produce an exception to show that humans might somehow be different. In this respect at least, we are as the beasts and behavioural psychology, for all its weaknesses, provides a telling explanation of human woes.

The animals were anxious about an unknown danger. When they discovered that the stimulus that had frightened them was not in fact painful or dangerous they were able to reevaluate their feelings of the general dangerousness of the cages. And, their neurotic symptoms promptly disappeared.

Drinking alcoholic drinks was their solution to tremendous internal tension just as it is for people of both genders. So we can say that the alcoholism rode on top of the neurosis. When they ceased to fear the cage, they ceased to be tense and had ceased to be alcoholics for they had no more need for alcohol.

In human life we are not confined to a cage and given other people set choices. But we do meet countless situations in which the shall-we shalln’t-we complex is inevitable. Thus an infant might fear to ask for food or help from an ogreish adult. A child at school may learn that asking for clarification is probably going to lead to derision and humiliation and so asks no questions and flunks out at study. A wife may dread to approach her husband with a concern (health, money, worries, household etc) for fear of the unpleasant reaction she has encountered on previous occasions. An employee would like to suggest improvements at work but has learned to keep his mouth shut, for fear of the rat-pack consequences.

It is clear therefore, that keynote psychology, to help anyone break free of past limitations, has to address episodes where they had a need but it was accompanied by a fear of trying to satisfy that need.

We could ask such questions as:

  1. "What have you been afraid to ask for or reach for?" and
  2. "What has been a source of both love and pain in your life?", "Tell me something you desired but also felt you had to withdraw from" or (more generically)
  3. "What has been both survival and non-survival in your life?"


or other forms of these questions

Also, any other questions that direct attention to moments of stress, tension or indecision leading to fear and or anxiety: "Do you feel guilty over abandoning someone in order to survive yourself?" or some variant of this.

Another batch of situations that could produce anxiety would be a wish to fight or have revenge together with fear of the consequences of doing so.

Theoretically there could also be moments when a person wanted to get away or complain but was afraid to do so for fear of attracting even greater scrutiny and possible punishment.

[ Am J Psychiatry 104:92-99, August 1947


"Our observations of the causes of aggressive behaviour among animals support the clinical and socio-biological conclusions of Karen Horney, John Dollard and others, that hostilities among human beings also spring from the frustrations and the anxiety-ridden inhibitions of their persistently barbaric culture - not, as Sigmund Freud believed, from an inborn, suicidal ‘death instinct’. If aggression is truly innate, we should perhaps join Freud and some of his disciples in resigning ourselves, with apocalyptic erudition, to our inevitable self-destruction. But if aggression is simply a blindly destructive reaction to misconceived threats, then it could be dissipated by the abolition of the tragic wants and anxieties that underlie the individual and mass neuroses and psychoses of mankind".

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