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Animal cognition

Animal cognition is the title given to a modern approach to the mental capacities of non-human animals. It has developed out of comparative psychology, but has also been strongly influenced by the approach of ethology and behavioral ecology. Much of what used to be considered under the title of animal intelligence is now thought of under this heading.

Table of contents
1 Historical background
2 Methodology
3 Research questions
4 Continuing controversy
5 External links
6 References

Historical background

For most of the twentieth century, the dominant approach to animal psychology was to use experiments on animal learning to uncover simple processes (such as classical conditioning and operant conditioning) that might then account for the apparently more complex intellectual abilities of human beings. This reductionist philosophy was combined with a strongly behaviorist methodology, in which overt behavior was taken as the only valid data for the study of psychology, and in its more extreme forms (the radical behaviorism of B. F. Skinner and his experimental analysis of behavior) behavior was taken as the only topic of interest. In effect, the mental processes that we experience in ourselves were viewed as epiphenomena.

The success of cognitive psychology in addressing human mental processes, from the late 1950s on, led to a re-evaluation of the research paradigm, and researchers began to address animal mental processes from the opposite direction, by taking what is known about human mental processes and looking for evidence of comparable processes in other species. In a sense this was a return to the approach of Darwin's protegé George Romanes, arguably the first comparative psychologist of the modern era. However, whereas Romanes relied heavily on anecdote and an anthropomorphic projection of human capacities onto other species, modern researchers in animal cognition are in most cases firmly behaviorist in methodology, even though they differ sharply from the behaviourist philosophy. There are some exceptions to the rule of behaviourist methodology, such as John Lilly and, some would argue, Donald Griffin, who have been prepared to take a strong position that other animals do have minds and that we should approach the study of their cognition accordingly. However their claims have not found wide acceptance in the scientific community, though they have attracted an enthusiastic following among lay people.

The development of animal cognition was also strongly influenced by:

This account of the history of the study of animal cognition is inevitably oversimplified. From Romanes on, there have always been comparative psychologists who have been more or less cognitively inclined: obviously examples are Wolfgang Köhler, famous for his studies of insight in chimpanzees, and Edward C. Tolman, who introduced into psychology, as an explanation of the behaviour of rats in mazes, two ideas that have been immensely influential in human cognitive psychology - the cognitive map and the idea of decision-making in risky choice according to expected value.


Research in animal cognition continues to use some of the established research techniques of comparative psychology and the experimental analysis of behavior, such as mazes and Skinner boxes, though it employs them in new varieties (such as the 8-arm maze and water maze that have been used in many studies of spatial memory) and in new ways. However it complements those with observation of animals in their natural environments, or quasi-natural environments and also with field experiments. It has also been characterised by a number of very long term projects, such as the Washoe project and other ape-language experiments (e.g. project Nim), Irene Pepperberg's extended series of studies with the African Gray Parrot Alex, and studies of long-term memory in pigeons in which birds were shown to remember pictures for periods of several years. Some researchers have made effective use of a Piagetianian methodology, taking tasks which human children are known to master at different stages of development, and investigating which of them can be performed by particular species.

Research questions

Given the broad programme of animal cognition, of looking for the animal analogues of human cognitive processes, the areas of study in animal cognition follow more or less from those in human cognitive psychology. However progress in the different areas has been variable. Among the fields of interest are:


Research has focused on animals' ability to distribute attention between different aspects of a stimulus, and on visual search. As in humans, it appears that sharing
attention between stimulus features reduces the capacity to detect any one of them, though there are some ecologically relevant visual search tasks at which particular species show remarkable abilities (for example, pigeons have an extraordinary capacity to pick out grain from substrate).


Following pioneering research by
Richard Herrnstein, there has been a mass of research on birds' ability to discriminate between categories of stimuli, including the kinds of ill-defined category that are used in everyday human speech. Birds have been found to learn this kind of task easily, and to transfer correct responding readily to new instances of the categories.


The categories that have been developed to analyse
human memory (short term memory, long term memory, working memory) have been applied to the study of animal memory, and some of the phenomena characteristic of human short term memory (e.g. the serial position effect) have been detected in animals particularly monkeys. However most progress has been made in the analysis of spatial memory, partly in relation to studies of the physiological basis of spatial memory and the role of the hippocampus, and partly in relation to scatter-hoarding animals such as Clark's Nutcracker, certain jays, and certain squirrels, whose ecological niches require them to remember to locations of thousands of caches, often following radical changes in the environment.

Tool use

There are some species that use particular tools as an essential part of their foraging behaviour, for example the Woodpecker Finch of the Galapagos Islands. However these behaviours are often quite inflexible and cannot be applied effectively in new situations. Several species have now been shown to be capable of more flexible tool use. A well known example is Jane Goodall's observation of chimpanzees "fishing" for termites in their natural environment, and captive great apes are often observed to use tools effectively; several species of corvids have also been trained to use tools in controlled experiments.

Reasoning and problem solving

Closely related to tool use is the study of reasoning and problem solving. Many of the data on these issues come from earlier comparative psychologists such as Wolfgang Köhler, rather than recent experiments. It is clear that animals of quite a range of species are capable of solving a range of problems that are argued to involve abstract reasoning; modern research has tended to show that the performances of Köhler's chimpanzees were by no means unique to that species, and that apparently similar behaviour can be found in animals usually thought of as much less intelligent, if appropriate training is given.


In addition to the ape-language experiments mentioned above, there have also been more or less successful attempts to teach language or language-like behaviour to some non-primate species, including cetaceans, the parrot Alex, and Great Spotted Woodpeckers.


The sense in which animals can be said to have consciousness or a self-concept has been hotly debated; it is often referred to as the debate over animal minds. The best known research technique in this area is the mirror test devised by Donald Griffin, in which an animal's skin is marked in some way while it is asleep or sedated, and it is then allowed to see its reflection in a mirror; if the animal spontaneously directs grooming behaviour towards the mark, that is taken as an indication that it is aware of itself. Self-awareness, by this criterion, has been reported for chimpanzees and also for some other great apes, and some cetaceans, but not for monkeys. However both the interpretation of such data, and the data themselves, remain controversial.

Deception, empathy, and theory of mind

Related to the issue of self-consciousness is the question of whether an animal can show empathy, i.e. can understand what another animal is thinking. It is usually argued that to show empathy requires you to have a theory of mind, i.e. to attribute mental processes to other individuals, and that without a theory of mind it is impossible for an animal or person to show tactical deception. Experiments to test for theory of mind in animals have mainly been carried out on primates. No convincing evidence has been found for theory of mind in any primate species other than the great apes; the interpretation of the data from great apes is currently controversial, but some researchers are convinced that they do show theory of mind.

Continuing controversy

The broad programme of research into animal cognition has achieved a good deal. Nonetheless, its results and philosophy continue to be debated, on a number of grounds:

External links