The black cat is a common symbol of Halloween, often presented as the companion of witches. Cast in this negative light, it’s perhaps unsurprising that people tend to be prejudiced against black cats. In a recent study, we looked at why people hold this negative bias against black felines. I will share those results here.
Negative attitudes towards black cats are common in many cultures. Black cats are often depicted as representations of evil, grief, sinister motives, and death. More broadly, the color black features heavily in superstitious belief systems. White or shiny things are often portrayed as good and black things are portrayed as bad.
Studies show that there are also negative cross-cultural attitudes towards dark complexion, with dark-skinned people often viewed with more negativity and distrust than their lighter-skinned counterparts.
There is considerable evidence that black dogs and cats are considered less desirable and are less readily adopted than brighter colored animals. This despite the fact that coat color is not related to the behavior of these animals.
Black Cat Bias Study
Haylie Jones and I were curious as to why people seem to have a bias towards black cats. Based on previous work, we have identified several possibilities.
One was that people who have been indoctrinated into religious belief systems can associate the color black with evil, causing them to view all things black, including cats, as sinister. Another possibility is that black cats have been associated with superstitious beliefs of bad luck, casting them in a negative light.
A third possibility is racial prejudice and prejudicial attitudes towards dark-skinned people may have been generalized to black cats as well. A fourth possibility is that the dark facial fur of black cats may alter human perception of cats’ facial cues, causing people to feel more emotionally detached from black cats.
Haylie and I conducted a study in which we showed over 100 people pictures of black and non-black cats. We asked them to rate how friendly, aggressive and adoptable each cat seemed. We also measured several aspects of the participants, including their religiosity, racial prejudice, and degree of superstition.
Conclusions on the black cat bias
Our conclusions were quite clear. First, we found that people viewed black cats as significantly less friendly and more aggressive than cats of other colors. Religiosity and racial bias were not associated with black cat bias. However, the superstition was. The more people were superstitious, the more they found black cats aggressive, hostile and unadoptable. Additionally, people who reported having trouble reading black cats’ facial expressions also had the same black cat bias.
We can therefore conclude that some people do indeed have a prejudice against black cats. This bias seems to be due to superstitious beliefs and difficulty in reading black cats’ facial signals.