Stats Of Cool Cats: Emotions, Mood Management And Cat Videos | Stats + Stories Episode 41 / by Stats Stories

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Jessica G. Myrick (@jessmyrick) is an associate professor of media studies at the Bellisario College of Communications at Penn State University. Her research focuses on the role of emotions in shaping our responses to various types of media messagesMyrick's research has touched on topics ranging from skin cancer prevention campaigns and climate change appeals to the effects of incivility in responses to political Facebook posts and why we watch cat videos, and it has been featured in news outlets around the globe.

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Rosemary Pennington : The internet is full of cats. There are blogs devoted to them. Twitter users sharing nothing but cat pictures and if you've been on Facebook recently, you've probably seen a cat video in your feed. Maybe it has annoyed you, maybe you thought the cat was cute, but those videos are more than just a distraction. They might actually be good for your emotional health. The connection between media and emotion is the focus of this episode of Stats and Stories, where we explore the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. I'm Rosemary Pennington. Stats and Stories is a partnership between Miami University's Departments of Statistics and Media, Journalism and Film and the American Statistical Association. Joining me in the studio our regular panelist, Statistics Department Chair, John Bailer and Media, Journalism and Film Department Chair, Richard Campbell. Our guest today is Jessica Gall Myrick, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State University who researches the connection between media and emotion. In 2015, she published a research article exploring the effect of cat videos on our well being and like those videos, her study went viral. Jessica, thank you for being here today. How did you decide cat videos were something you wanted to study?

Jessica Gall Myrick : That is a good question. It really wasn't my intent. I normally study health related media and environmental science communication but I just keep seeing cat videos everywhere. I'm a dog owner. I'm actually allergic to real cats and it struck me as sort of strange that a dog person would, without trying, be consuming all this cat related media. And so I just sort of started commenting on it enough to the point where I got curious enough to open up the academic databases and start searching, and said "Ok, has anyone looked at this before?" and I couldn't really find anything. I found a few basic sort of pieces but nothing that had empirically examined this. And the other thing that sort of drove me to study this is I live in Bloomington Indiana, home of Indiana University but also home of Lil BUB.

Pennington : Yes.

Myrick : And there's a Lil BUB mural in town, there's a brick and mortar Lil BUB store. So I was really seeing firsthand and through the media, this amazing cultural power of mediated cats, so to say. And so I started commenting someone should study these videos, someone should study cat videos. And it got to the point where I said it so often, my husband finally said, why don't you study cat videos? If you think this is so important, why don't you do it? And then I thought, you know what? That's exactly right and I have enough background in emotions, that really is my focus area, how do different types of media shape our emotional responses and our emotional responses influence our behavior so it really actually fit pretty well my program of research just the stimuli, you know, being cat videos was a little different than some of the other media products that I had studied before.

Pennington : So what exactly did you find?

Myrick : So I did a survey of people who were already looking at cat videos. I really wanted to get those folks who were engaging with this type of media, and what I found was a number of things but sort of the main finding, the thing that got the most media attention was that...when I ask people to think back to their most recent experience watching an online cat video, I asked them how they felt before they did that and then I asked what we call filler questions right...a bunch of stuff to kind of distract them get them talking about other topics and I said okay, now think back to that last time you watched a cat video. Again, how did you feel afterwards? When I ran the analyses people felt significantly more positive emotions, they felt more hopeful, happy. Also, even more energized after watching the before and they felt less anxious, less guilty and less depleted. So we saw both the shift in sort of the tone of their emotion, the what we call valence from negative to positive, but also in the arousal level. They actually felt more energized after watching cat videos than before.

John Bailer : When you started this, it was more than just someone should study cat videos. You had a sense of what you wanted to see. So what was your research hypothesis going into this investigation?

Myrick : Yeah I really rooted the study in what media scholars call mood management theory and this idea that over time when we're exposed to different types of media, different genres, you come to associate them with different emotional rewards and payoffs in this very implicit way that we don't necessarily realize we're choosing our movies or television or websites based on our emotions but really, it serves the purpose of helping to regulate our emotions because we know in the user back recesses of our brain that different types of media are associated with different types of emotion. So I predicted that we would probably see more positive associations, positive emotional associations with cat videos but I didn't really make a prediction about the arousal levels. That was really interesting to me that people feel more energized after watching cat videos than before.

Richard Campbell : I study narrative and news, and I do it mostly qualitatively and one of the reasons, you know, in my career is I just thought narrative was such a slippery concept...and emotion is a slippery concept. So for me, kind of qualitative methods were very useful in studying narrative. In emotion and you talk about using qualitative methods but you do this as a social scientist. So how do you control for things like variables impact on people's emotions? How do you sort of control what you're going to find?

Myrick : We try to include different demographics and other factors that we think might influence emotions as control variables in the regressions that I run, typically. So you know, for this study, I controlled for gender, I controlled for how many cats they actually own, real cats. I made up a scale that was called past year pet assistance behavior. So I started to control for you know if they did things like volunteer at the animal shelter or donate to animal welfare organizations and even after I did all of that, I still found that the emotional responses were the best predictors of how often people watched cat videos. So yeah emotion is I love that phrase a slippery concept. There's a lot of debate still in the literature about what emotion is, how can we conceptualize it, how can we assess it. I think what the consensus is, even if we're having a hard time really strictly defining it, is that emotion really drives our behaviors. So my interest in media is how it shapes our attitudes but eventually our behaviors I'm really interested in that as a downstream outcome variable and so that's what drew me to study emotions as this mechanism often is a better predictor of behavior than our cognitions or our risk perceptions or even our attitudes a lot of the times. So I think you have to be really careful, like you said, to try to control for as many other factors as you can but at the end of the day, people are starting to more consistently find this outcome that different types of emotions drive different types of behaviors.

Bailer : How do you quantify emotion? So what types of scales do you use to do that? And secondly, with an effect like this, how long do you think it would last? As you mentioned, you're thinking about something would be a more downstream kind of impact?

Myrick : In my work, I typically apply theory of emotions called appraisal theory that looks at different types of emotions as qualitatively different. So fear and anger are both negative emotions but this perspective argues. But there are actually different; fear is associated with avoidance tendencies, anger is associated actually approaching whatever is making you angry. Hope is slightly different from joy, et cetera. I use scales that come from that aspect of the literature and ask people how much of each emotion do you feel and there's you know three or four related emotion words per emotion concept and make an index. So that's really how I applied them here there's a lot of different ways to deal with it, of course, but that was how I used it in the cat video study.

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Pennington : You're listening to Stats and Stories, where we explore the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. Our guest today is Pennsylvania State University's Jessica Gall Myrick, who studies media and emotion. Jess, your cat studies seem to get out of control when it came to media. I feel like every time I turned around I sort of saw someone else tweeting about it or another story about I kind of wanted to ask you about your response to that coverage and maybe sort of what you felt reporters did well and maybe where you feel like the coverage could have been a bit better.

Myrick : Yeah it was a fascinating experience as a former journalist turned media researcher to then be really engaging with journalists from all around the world. I mean it was literally that study came out in the early summer and I spent all of June and July doing interviews usually at least one a day. Some days I'd be sitting by the the landline phone in my office for hours and did interviews: Australians, folks from Japan, Colombia, Hungary, a lot of Canadian radio stations for some reason were interested in the story. So it, A, showed me sort of the universal appeal of pets, and you know one of the things that I start my actual manuscript of this journal article out with is some statistics that show that cat videos are the most popular genre on the internet. So you know, as media scholars, the most popular genre videos that is. As media scholars, you know, we can study coverage in The New York Times till we turn blue but if you look at what people are actually consuming, like health related media is a good chunk of what people are consuming, interacting with media wise, so I was thrilled when people, when journalists would ask me about the theory, about mood management, about does this apply to other types of media how generalizable are your findings. I found there were a lot of really insightful journalists. I would say that the finding that people took way out of context and continue to this day there was an article, the other day where they're basically citing the press release from Indiana and they've totally messed it up is that I wanted to see if people who were purposefully consuming these videos to procrastinate. If they had sort of a different pattern of emotional responses to consuming cat videos because a lot of media research has found that when you consume media to procrastinate, it actually produces guilt. So you don't get as much of that sort of positive emotional gratification from consuming media when you're procrastinating. But I found that in my work looking at cat videos in this one study, sort of initial study that if people were really happy after watching the cat video, even if they were watching the video just to procrastinate, it really mitigated the guilt that they experienced and they still reported enjoying that media experience in communication, stats you recall is a moderated mediation model, that you have this fancy path model my paper but a lot of journalists just said you can watch cat videos and procrastinate, you won't feel guilty at all. No! This is not what I meant!

Bailer : And it's not what you said either.

Myrick : So there are some articles like tell your boss, this is cat videos, you can watch all day, it will energize you. You are not procrastinating and stuff like that so the more complicated findings definitely got butchered a little bit but that's statistically typical for reporting on any sort of statistical finding.

Campbell : You've also worked a little bit as a journalist so can you talk a little bit about kind of similarities and differences and what that experience has brought to your work as a social scientist?

Myrick : Yeah definitely. One of the other reasons that I was drawn to studying emotions was I found when I was a journalist and you know you go to the grocery store and you see people and they tell you "Oh I like that story" or "that was really interesting" they never were telling me about some statistic that I had reported. They were always telling me about some person I interviewed that really touched them or scared them or made them angry. I found that was what was sticking with people. When I talked to them later or they talked to me about my my journalism so that was an anecdotal pattern that I found and when I started when I went back to graduate school after I decided to do that and I started it very slowly, reading a little bit of stuff about emotion, it definitely struck a chord based on my journalistic experience. And I also worked both in print and broadcast journalism. I worked at a public television radio station but I also did a lot of freelance work for magazines and even newspapers and in seeing the power of a visual or a like a really good nat sound pop to make a story also taught me about emotion and so there are a lot of there's a lot of interplay there, and I do have to say all the production skills I know really really help and I'm doing experiments and I need to make some fake stimuli that look like a real story so that's a little added benefit of having some professional experience.

Bailer : Let me explore now the stats side. You have talked about the journalism side. You know, one thing that I was curious about was was getting seven thousand people to respond so how did you select this sample? Did you have a frame of people that you sampled and you know, if so, you know, what kind of response did you get? And ultimately, the question that motivates this type of investigation would be, what's the generalizability of the results that you found?

Myrick : Like I said, I had searched high and low in the literature. I couldn't find anything empirical about this so I sort of cited this would be like a first step initial study to sort of explore some of these connections and so and also you know at the time I didn't have a ton of research funding, I was assistant professor so, I went with the convenience sample with the hopes of you know in the future we can maybe you know broaden that to get more generalizable what I did, because I live in the same town as Lil Bub's and Lil Bub's owner, was I emailed Lil Bub's owner and I said "Hey, I live here too. I work in the Indiana University and I was wondering if I donate some of my own personal money to Lil Bub's charity," she has a foundation that helps special needs animals, "will you just post the link to my online survey on Lil Bub's social media platforms" and he said yes. And so literally within like two hours, I had eleven thousand people who had started the survey and seven thousand who completed it. So I pretty quickly shut it down or I was going to go broke….just get some data. So I never...I did not intend to have thousands and thousands of participants for this. You know I was hoping to, at least, get maybe a thousand but seven thousand was a lot more than I had intended. But you know, again it's sort of shows the power of this medium and the credibility that Lil Bub's owner has to post a link and all these people are like sure,I'll put on that. We just went to town. So that's the backstory on how I got my sample.

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Pennington : This is Stats and Stories, where we explore the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. Today's guest is Penn State's Jessica Gall Myrick who studies media and emotion. Jessica, I know you've done some work on celebrities who are not cats, and how they influence our understanding of health issues. Could you talk a little bit about what that strand of research has uncovered?

Myrick : Yeah sure. So I was really interested in how when celebrities have some sort of health event or pass away from a serious health event, how does that influence public attitudes and behaviors such as the media coverage of this. And I was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when Steve Jobs passed away and there was just this inundation on social media, television, radio, print: every outlet was covering Steve Jobs. They were telling you he had pancreatic cancer. They're talking about his life story. They're talking about Apple, Apple products. What is Apple going to do from here? A professor and other handful of graduate students and I started looking at that and really I wanted to see does our emotional response to these types of news events shape how we will think and behave towards the disease. So obviously not every story was about the disease specifically but does the sort of, you know, morass of all this media coverage produce an emotional response that can be kind of harnessed or that does influence if people will seek further information about the disease or if they will you know talk to a medical provider. And with the Steve Jobs study was interesting because we had two different samples. We had one that was only students at the university and we had one that was older. It was faculty and staff. We found the students sample, a younger sample, it's a much much lower risk for all types of cancers but particularly pancreatic cancer which is what Steve Jobs died from, their main emotional response to the news story was sadness and grief. And we found the sadness did predict some cancer information seeking but not a ton. But for the older sample, it was actually worry and anxiety. It was sort of their predominant emotional response to the news media and that motivated more information seeking about cancer and more willingness to contact health care providers. So we found, you know, emotional responses to these types of celebrity health news stories are context dependent...depends on how you identify with the individual what had been found before a lot of studies but also it depends on how you respond emotionally to all of this media coverage and again it gets back to this idea that different emotions, sadness and anxiety, they're both negative emotions but they can motivate different types of behaviors or different intensities of behaviors too.

Campbell : This reminds me of another one of your studies and it's related to something I read in our student newspaper the other day that the director of health services said students today know a lot...they seek a lot more information about mental health issues. They're better informed. They help out each other when they're in trouble but not so much with drinking, you know, that's a whole different issue that's a health issue. And I thought maybe this somehow related to your study on why people or young adults do and do not search for health information. And what might be the reasons for students who do seek information about health issues but don't seem to be seeking much information on their drinking culture which is a serious problem in many universities?

Myrick : Yeah that's really interesting to find that pattern. My guess is that it's it's probably driven by not viewing drinking as a serious health issue with long term or even terrible immediate health consequences. Whereas I think there's been a lot more media coverage and a lot more university level interventions related to mental health. But they can see okay this is a serious health issue; leads to suicide. Whereas drinking, hey everyone in college drinks. There's really a strong social norm around it and as they're probably less scared of the serious health consequences associated say with drinking. You know they can, you know, just sleep off a hangover, but you can't really sleep off mental health. And my guess is that the sort of a lack of a fear response to drinking makes it less likely they're going to spend a lot of time seeking information on it. My other guess is they probably think they're sort of quasi experts about drinking and yet you know they have like the best hangover remedy and they know exactly which types of drinks to drink or not and what we what researchers have found is that subjective knowledge level, not what you actually know what you think you know. If you think you know a lot can sort of dampen fear responses and can dampen information seeking behaviors that might help prevent serious health issues. So in that study where we looked at why college students do or do not seek health information, we've got a lot of research about why they do and anxiety is one thing that motivates people to seek information. But there wasn't a lot about why they didn't and so those things that, you know, when they feel like they're experts or they feel like they'll just get healthy five or ten years later but college is the time to live it up. When they have that sort of short term perspective, that tends to dampen health information seeking.

Campbell : One of the things that I've noticed in the way just local media cover these issues, they do cover mental health issues as a serious health issue and they often cover drinking as a crime story. So there are very different ways that I think media approach these issues too and that probably contributes these different perceptions.

Myrick : Yeah that's a great point.

Bailer : I wonder if it begs the question of trying to find ways to induce anxiety.

Myrick : Yeah, and that's a really slippery slope.

Bailer : About alcohol consumption and the potential impacts of it.

Myrick : Yeah if you increase too much anxiety though that can get people to distrust the message source, to just sort of avoid it because they feel like they can't cope. So most health communication research says if you're gonna bump up anxiety in your message then you need to also include what we call efficacy information, like how to avoid this bad thing and really I'm starting a line of work where we look at OK do you tell people how to avoid this bad health threat, does that actually induce feelings of hope. Is that really hopefulness that motivates people to go do this, not just the knowledge gained there. The interplay between the knowledge gain about efficacy behaviors and hopeful feelings hasn't quite been investigated yet but I think it's a promising area for future work.

Bailer : I'm dying to ask you, you know, if you're feeling down and things are a little slow, do you find yourself firing up a cat video?

Myrick : I do. Yeah I've started doing that. The other thing that happened when I did all these interviews about the study was everyone was asking me what my favorite cat video was and you know like I said, I wasn't really a rampant connoisseur of these things beforehand. So I was like always googling before I did interviews to try to find really good cat videos to recommend to people. So yes, so I will make a recommendation here I guess...Patty Cake Cats. Very hilarious. So if you want to google that later, that's kind of my go to. But I am also a big Lil Bub's fan and she's a local cat, I like to go watch her videos because…

Bailer : You got to support local talent.

Myrick : That's right, you got to stay local…

Pennington : Reporting on health issues tend to get a really bad rap. It seems like a study comes out and it says one thing and then two weeks later another study comes on and says another thing and the reporters kind of bounce between those things and I wonder as someone who researchers health communication very broadly, what are your frustrations with the way journalists cover health communication research or health research? And how do you think they might be able to improve that coverage?

Myrick : That's a great question. I think one of my big frustrations is looking at each study as its own singular thing but we know from science, every study is building on a greater base of knowledge. So I wish that health reports would put a little more context in there. And they also tend to only sort of emphasize the exciting possibilities and not necessarily the risks. So I think we often don't necessarily get a balanced idea. You say there's this new possible treatment for cancer that's so exciting but what are the risks? We're finding now that a lot of cancer treatments actually lead to secondary cancers. Treatment for breast cancer later lead to lymphoma and other blood and bone marrow cancer so I think people sometimes get overly hopeful after reading a news report and don't realize the nature of science is so incremental. And I don't know that it's necessarily all the health reporters fault but I think if as a society, we can get a greater understanding of the scientific method and how that applies to our everyday life in the these medicines we take these you know behaviors we deal with, exercising, our diet, diet is a great example of the scientific research you mentioned that one day coffee will kill you, one day it is going to prevent colon cancer. And you know maybe more holistic approach to it will help when you say, well yes the study found a positive correlation but it wasn't longitudinal. And for people to understand that, for the public to understand it's going to take more science literacy more than anything. So it is frustrating, at the same time I really empathize too with those reporters and you know they want people to click on their story and they are not to click on the well, coffee might possibly, maybe, potentially be good for you with these ten caveats headline, right? So, sort of innate I think a lot of it is this reciprocal relationship with our lack of understanding the scientific method.

Bailer : Your comment about the single study and kind of investing a lot in that particular result, there's been a lot of discussion associated with reproducibility and research. Is that something that you have been following and what are some of your thoughts about that?

Myrick : Yeah I think that's a really great thing to be discussing and especially if you think about so much research across every field is done on typically well educated, typically white populations. But there might be a lot of gender and cultural variance and socioeconomic variance we haven't tapped into. And it is worthwhile to invest in reproducing studies of all types in these diverse audiences and seeing how well you know the theories we hold dear actually we reproduce and hold up. And I think too, with the changing media environment, that it's worth re-doing a lot of the classic studies in media psychology to see if things hold true. We have such, you know, these social influences on media even if I'm still going to the New York Times website and reading the same content I did on the physical piece of paper that was delivered to my doorstep. On that website, I know if that's the most e-mailed story; I know how many people commented; I'm just getting a lot more social cues in this environment than before. So I think reproducing work is really important. It doesn't mean I also think that we need to be careful because if you try to read you a classic study and it doesn't work that one time that doesn't mean that the study or that theory is void. I think we should keep reproducing things but also be careful to look at the limitations or what maybe there are some other confound in there, that is changing the results. Not necessarily throwing the baby out with the bathwater but it's great to see a little bit more methodological rigor across time and in our fields.

Pennington : That's all the time we have for this episode of Stats and Stories. Jessica Gall Myrick of Pennsylvania State University thank you for being here. Stats and stories is a partnership between Miami University's departments of statistics and media journalism and film and the American Statistical Association. You can follow us on Twitter or on iTunes. If you'd like to share your thoughts on the program send your e-mail to And be sure to listen for future editions of Stats and Stories, where we discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind statistics.