Cognitive Daily

I’m reporting from sunny, temperate Paris. Gorgeous weather here, and we’ve already taken in a few sights.

However, the first psychology-related photo op actually occurred on the plane on the way over here. Why is Greta scowling in this picture?


She’s holding a catalog page from the SkyMall catalog, where travelers can order useless gizmos from the discomfort of their airline seats. Here’s a close-up of the offending catalog item.


There’s a doozy of a psychological error in the claims made for this product. Can you spot it? Let us know in the comments.


  1. #1 coturnix
    June 2, 2007

    Just one error?!

  2. #2 Dave
    June 2, 2007

    If I remember correctly from PSYC 101, this device trains cats through operant conditioning (reward for desirable behavior presented after that behavior, or because of that behavior), which is totally different from pavlovian conditioning, where a creature is made to give a particular response (drooling) to a particular stimulus (bell ringing) by the simultanous presentation of the desired stimulus and some stimulus that naturally produces the desired behavior (giving food) during training. Operant conditioning is sort of the opposite from this: the behavior is made to cause a reward/punishment response, whereas in Pavlovian conditioning a certain stimulus is made to cause the behavior.

  3. #3 Norman Costa
    June 2, 2007

    Dave is right. The ad should be titled, “Skinner’s Cat”.

    Norman Costa

  4. #4 Blake Stacey, OM
    June 2, 2007

    Norman Costa:

    Well, there’s more than one way to Skinner a cat.

    [Dodges tomatoes]

  5. #5 Gabe
    June 2, 2007

    It also seems that “neutral color carpet that blends with any decor” would have the cat scratching up all the funiture looking for food!

  6. #6 Elver
    June 2, 2007

    Oooh! Ooooh! I know! Pavlov did experiments on cows, not cats! The cow would ring her bell and then Pavlov fed it!

  7. #7 Roy Huggins
    June 2, 2007

    The base is described as “clever”. That’s it, right?

    That and Pavlov didn’t do operant conditioning. But it looks like Dave beat me to that answer.

  8. #8 Agnostic
    June 2, 2007

    The suggestion that you can train a cat?

  9. #9 coturnix
    June 2, 2007

    That is Schroedinger’s Cat – you don’t know if it is alive or dead until you notice the scratch marks on the furniture.

  10. #10 Elf Eye
    June 2, 2007

    Our cat has trained us to feed him whenever he rings a bell. A little basket with a tiny Winnie the Pooh nestled inside hung about a foot above the food dish, which was on a two-drawer filing cabinet. On the line holding up the basket was a bell. The cat would jump up on the filing cabinet and on occasion paw at the basket with its little bear nestled inside, thereby setting the bell ringing. The sound would attract our attention, and if the food dish happened to be empty, we would fill it. Eventually, the little bear fell out, but by the time that had happened, the cat had figured out that ringing the bell would bring us running. Now he jumps up on the filing cabinet and, if the dish is empty, immediately paws at the basket. So even if humans cannot train cats, cats can train humans.

  11. #11 Johan
    June 2, 2007

    Actually, the ad is accurate – though probably unwittingly.

    Pavlov and his associates did experiments that would today be described as operant conditioning (ie, the outcome depends on the response of the animal). Pavlov simply didn’t realize that this was a fundamentally different type of conditioning than classical conditioning (ie, the outcome arrives regardless of the response of the animal).


  12. #12 reader
    June 2, 2007

    Why on earth would you want to reward the scratching behavior?

  13. #13 David Group
    June 2, 2007

    Since all the important points have already been made, I’d just like to point out a minor head-scratcher: Why is the paw-shaped base described as “clever”? Seems like a no-brainer to me.

  14. #14 Haex
    June 3, 2007

    Must I say it? It should be Freud’s Cat…

  15. #15 Elver
    June 3, 2007

    Nope. It’s Freud’s Cow.

    “Sometimes an udder is just an udder.”

  16. #16 KenBW2
    June 3, 2007

    More to the point, why would you want a scratching post on the plane?

  17. #18 roseindigo
    June 3, 2007

    Actually Pavlov did have a cat. But in his experiments the cat trained Pavlov instead of Pavlov training the cat—and he was just too embarrassed to write about that part. 😉

  18. #19 Chris
    June 3, 2007

    >Why on earth would you want to reward the scratching behavior?

    Cats are going to scratch no matter what. The best thing you can hope for is train them to scratch in an approved location.

  19. #20 codyfrew
    June 3, 2007

    Yes, if any of us have had basic psych class, we should all know that this is an example of operant/instrumental conditioning and that Pavlov is famous for classical conditioning. So, the small company’s marketing genius didn’t read up on his psychology…

    But, more interesting- what is the difference between operant and classical conditioning? Aren’t they just different names for the same mechanism? At some level, the network of cells is encoding some kind of value onto some event because it is associated with a positive or negative consequence. The event can be user generated or external- but at some level it is all the same thing. It is all about ASSOCIATION. I hope we can all appreciate that while we scoff at the ad…

  20. #21 Alan Kellogg
    June 3, 2007

    You’re all wrong. The problem with the picture is that it shows a cat using a scratching post.

  21. #22 Marianne
    June 4, 2007

    I spotted this last semester (also while riding on a plane) and used it as an extra credit question in my research methods class. About 1/3 of the class got it right.

    The best (most worrisome?) answer was “If you want people to learn, you should use punishment.”

  22. #23 Garrett
    June 4, 2007

    I put down the SkyMall yesterday after the spring-loaded shoes…

  23. #24 Dennis
    June 4, 2007

    I always heard Pavlov worked with dogs, not cats or cows.

    He got the dogs to salivate when they heard a bell ringing by building an association between the ringing bell and the appearance of food.

  24. #25 K
    June 5, 2007

    One of the first things I noticed about this device is that there is no reason the cat has to scratch the post to eat the treats. The cat can simply eat the treats. I am unconvinced that this would set up a reward association for scratching.

  25. #26 Josh
    June 5, 2007

    I wonder if it works…

  26. #27 Josh
    June 5, 2007

    I wonder if the cat will scratch for food or make you do it.

  27. #28 roseindigo
    June 5, 2007

    A cat usually does exactly what it wants to do, or will make its owner do it for her/him. It only works if the cat decides to like the scratching post, and in the meantime it will get the reward of food by twining itself around your legs until you give in. Clever cat!

  28. #29 Jim
    June 6, 2007

    I agree with the comment that it should be called the “Skinner Post”, but if I remember correctly, what this is doing is training the cat to scratch all the furniture because it will learn the reward for scratching is food.

  29. #30 komok
    June 6, 2007

    Prof. Pavlov experimented on dogs, not cats, hence the idiomatic phrase “Pavlov’s Dog”, (not “…cat”), meaning someone being cruelly used, manipulated or outright doomed. The closest meaning in English to that is i guess “a guinea pig”.

  30. #31 acm
    June 6, 2007

    um, cats can be trained. not only have I successfully convinced a long series of cats that kitchen counters and dining room tables are not allowed, but I now have two active cats who sit, sit up, come, wave, and jump through a hoop on command. it all depends on how much snacks motivate them!


  31. #32 David Group
    June 7, 2007

    The name of the product at the bottom of the page just caught my eye: Pavlov’s Cat Scratch Feeder. Shouldn’t they have called it Ted Nugent’s Cat Scratch Feeder? ;-D

  32. #33 Keith Nolan
    June 12, 2007

    End it with an ‘a’ and then enjoy. Problem solved!

  33. #34 Jerryc
    June 17, 2007

    Er, don’t want to worry you but is ‘Greta’ really woman? Looks disturbingly like a chap to me.

  34. #35 Lisa Cole
    June 24, 2007

    There’s no secondary reinforcer. Also (I’m assuming) there’s no mechanism for variable reinforcement. Kitty will learn the minimum amount of scratching needed to gain a treat. swipe, crunch, swipe, crunch (etc, etc), belch, off to scratch something else. Most cats want something taller to scratch on, something they can lean against and really shred, a tree or a couch. A much cheaper alternative is a nice barky log split in half. I’ve only had one cat that didn’t get the scratching horizontally thing.

  35. #36 Utbildning Marknadsföring
    December 26, 2007

    Good advertising doesn’t necessarily have to be correct. Sometimes good art directors use phrases, statements, “facts” or other kinds of information that are obviously incorrect. They are doing so in order to challenge the customers competence or knowledge. While the customer is upset about the “error” and discusses this with friends and colleagues or like in this case – is posting messages on this great blog, the likeliness that everyone involved will process the advertising message, encode it and store it solidly in memory increases. However, after taking a closer look at the ad it doesn’t really seem as if the guy/girl who created it was that ingenious.
    A great way to attract individuals who are interested in psychology is to use ads with obvious (or less obvious) errors related psychology.

  36. #37 Gillian
    February 25, 2008

    The Pavlov Cat thing is an error!!! Pavlov experimented on dogs. Maybe the one who developed that product didn’t read that Thorndike was the one who experimented on cats. :-p I still remembered what I’ve learned in my Theories of Learning class. 🙂

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