Psychology Wiki

Animal cognition

Revision as of 08:22, January 29, 2008 by Dr Joe Kiff (Talk | contribs)

34,200pages on
this wiki

Assessment | Biopsychology | Comparative | Cognitive | Developmental | Language | Individual differences | Personality | Philosophy | Social |
Methods | Statistics | Clinical | Educational | Industrial | Professional items | World psychology |

Animals · Animal ethology · Comparative psychology · Animal models · Outline · Index

Animal cognition, is the title given to a modern approach to the mental capacities of animals other than humans. It has developed out of comparative psychology, but has also been strongly influenced by the approach of ethology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary psychology. The alternative name cognitive ethology is therefore sometimes used; and much of what used to be considered under the title of animal intelligence is now thought of under this heading. Note that in this article, as in the field of animal cognition, "animal" is used here and in the following in the usual sense of "non-human animal", even though its meaning in biology normally comprises all members of the kingdom Animalia, including humans.

Historical background

For most of the twentieth century, the dominant approach to animal psychology was to use experiments on intelligence in animals to uncover simple processes (such as classical conditioning and operant conditioning) that might then account for the apparently more complex intellectual abilities of humans. This approach is well summarised in the mid-century book by Hilgard (1958), but its 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 humans experience in themselves were viewed as epiphenomena (see, for example, Skinner, 1969).

The success of cognitive psychology in addressing human mental processes, which began in the late 1950s and was proclaimed by Neisser (1967), 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 (e.g. 1886), 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 behaviorist philosophy. There are some exceptions to the rule of behaviorist methodology, such as John Lilly and, some would argue, Donald Griffin (e.g. 1992), who have been prepared to take a strong position that other animals do have minds and that humans 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: obvious 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 behavior 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, Louis Herman's work with bottlenosed dolphins, and studies of long-term memory in pigeons in which birds were shown to remember pictures for periods of several years. Some cognitive research also requires the management of animal behavior, and the use of operant conditioning to facilitate animal training. In general, the conclusion of concept formation in an animal requires a generalization test where the animal responds appropriately to a novel stimulus to which associative learning cannot explain the response behavior. Some researchers have made effective use of a Piagetian 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. Others have been inspired by concerns for animal welfare and the management of domestic species: for example Temple Grandin has harnessed her unique expertise in animal welfare and the ethical treatment of farm livestock to highlight underlying similarities between humans and other animals.

Research questions

File:Chimpanzee and stick.jpg

Given the broad program of animal cognition, of looking for the animal analogs 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 responses 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-hoarder animals such as Clark's Nutcracker, certain jays, titmice and certain squirrels, whose ecological niches require them to remember the locations of thousands of caches, often following radical changes in the environment.

Tool and weapon use

Further information: Category:Tool-using species

Some species, such as the Woodpecker Finch of the Galapagos Islands, use particular tools as an essential part of their foraging behavior. However, these behaviors 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, or use bread crumbs for bait-fishing [1].

Research in 2007 shows that chimpanzees in the Fongoli savannah sharpen sticks to use as spears when hunting, considered the first evidence of systematic use of weapons in a species other than humans.[1][2]

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, who could achieve spontaneous solutions to problems without training, were by no means unique to that species, and that apparently similar behavior can be found in animals usually thought of as much less intelligent, if appropriate training is given.


The modeling of human language in animals is known as animal language research. In addition to the ape-language experiments mentioned above, there have also been more or less successful attempts to teach language or language-like behavior to some non-primate species, including parrots and Great Spotted Woodpeckers. Louis Herman published research on artificial language comprehension in the bottlenosed dolphin using cognitive research methods at the height of the skepticism produced by Herbert Terrace's criticism of chimpanzee language experiments through his own results with the animal Nim Chimpsky. In particular, the focus on the comprehension mode only allowed cognitive methods of utilizing blinded observers to grade the animals' gross physical behavior, rather than trying to interpret putative language production. Herman's results (Herman, Richards, & Wolz, 1984) were published in the (human) journal Cognition, regarding work on the dolphins Akeakamai and Phoenix. All such research has been controversial among cognitive linguists.


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 Gordon Gallup, 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, some cetaceans and a solitary elephant, but not for monkeys. The mirror test has attracted controversy among some researchers because it is entirely focused on vision, the primary sense in humans, while other species rely more heavily on other senses such as the olfactory sense in dogs.


The question of whether animals have emotions, that is, feelings, and if those are qualitatively the same as humans' feelings or in fact simple stimulus responses, is under debate at the moment. See Emotion in animals.

Continuing controversy

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

  • Particular issues within animal cognition, particularly the interpretation of language-learning and self-awareness experiments, have generated major controversies both about the extent of the animals' achievements, and about the correct interpretation of the behavior observed.
  • Cognitive scientists have been interested in comparing and contrasting human cognition with artificial intelligence or machine cognition, but have been less interested in including animal cognition in the analysis - despite the fact that the common biological origins of human and animal cognition suggest that there might be greater resemblance, at least in some respects, between human and animal cognition than between human and machine cognition. There is also a minority of cognitive scientists who simply neglect accumulated psychological knowledge about cognition, whether animal or human.
  • Those psychologists who are committed to radical behaviorism and the experimental analysis of behaviour discount cognitive analyses of animal behavior. This is not surprising since for the most part they also reject cognitive analyses of human behaviour. It is perhaps a category error to oppose behavioural and cognitive analyses: insofar as the study of animal cognition exposes new behavioural phenomena, it simply provides more that a radical behaviourist must explain without using mentalistic language.

Relative intelligence of different animal species

Some animals, including great apes, crows, dolphins, dogs, elephants, cats, and parrots are typically thought by humans as intelligent in ways that other animals are not. For example, crows are attributed with human-like intelligence in the folklore of many cultures. A number of recent survey studies have demonstrated the consistency of these rankings between people in a given culture and indeed to a considerable extent across cultures (e.g. Nakajima et al., 2002). A common image is the scala naturae, the ladder of nature on which animals of different species occupy successively higher rungs, with humans typically at the top. Comparative psychologists have sought in vain for ways of providing an objective underpinning for these essentially subjective and anthropocentric judgements. Part of the difficulty is the lack of agreement about what we mean by intelligence even in humans (it obviously makes a big difference whether language is considered as essential for intelligence, for example). As a result, most scientists studying animal cognition regard questions about which animals are the most intelligent as vacuous. A more fruitful approach has been to recognise that different animals may have different kinds of cognitive processes, which are better understood in terms of the ways in which they are cognitively adapted to their different ecological niches, than by positing any kind of hierarchy. This is the approach taken by the most comprehensive reference text of animal cognition, Shettleworth (1998).

One question that can be asked coherently is how far different species are intelligent in the same ways as humans are, i.e. are their cognitive processes similar to ours. Not surprisingly, our closest biological relatives, the great apes, tend to do best on such an assessment. It is less clear that other species traditionally held to be intelligent do unusually well against this standard, though among the birds, corvids and parrots have typically been found to perform well. Domesticated animals often perform well in tests of human-like abilities, but this may simply reflect their better adaptation to the human world and the proximity of humans.

Despite ambitious claims, evidence of unusually high human-like intelligence among cetaceans is patchy, partly because the cost and difficulty of carrying out research with marine mammals mean that experiments frequently suffer from small sample sizes and inadequate controls and replication. Octopuses have also been claimed to exhibit a number of higher-level problem-solving skills, but the amount of research on cephalopod intelligence is too limited for it to be conclusive.

See also


  • Goodall, J. (1991). Through a window. London: Penguin.
  • Griffin, D. R. (1992). Animal minds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kamil A. C., Balda R. P. (1990). Differential memory for different cache sites by Clark's nutcrackers (Nucifraga columbiana). Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 16, 162-168.
  • Hilgard, E. R. (1958). Theories of learning, 2nd edn. London: Methuen.
  • Nakajima, S., Arimitsu, K., & Lattal, K. M. (2002). Estimation of animal intelligence by university students in Japan and the United States. Anthrozoös, 15, 194-205.
  • Neisser, U. (1967). Cognitive psychology. New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Romanes, G. J. (1886). Animal intelligence, 4th edn. London: Kegan Paul, Trench.
  • Shettleworth, S. J. (1998). Cognition, evolution and behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement: a theoretical analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

External links

es:Cognición animal

fr:Intelligence animale he:אינטליגנציה בבעלי חיים pt:Inteligência animal


Animal cognition: Academic support materials

This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).

Around Wikia's network

Random Wiki