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Comparative theory of mind

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Comparative theory of mind is an aspect of comparative social cognition an involves the question of whether animals are aware of other animals as having intentions, desires etc similar to their own and are able to make use of this information

As the title of Premack and Woodruff's 1978 article "Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind?" indicates, it is also important to ask if other animals besides humans have a genetic endowment and social environment that allows them to acquire a theory of mind in the same way that human children do. This is a contentious issue because of the problem of inferring from animal behavior the existence of thinking, of the existence of a concept of self or self-awareness, or of particular thoughts.

Non-human research still has a major place in this field, however, and is especially useful in illuminating which nonverbal behaviors signify components of theory of mind, and in pointing to possible stepping points in the evolution of what many claim to be a uniquely human aspect of social cognition. While it is difficult to study human-like theory of mind and mental states in species which we do not yet describe as "minded" at all, and about whose potential mental states we have an incomplete understanding, researchers can focus on simpler components of more complex capabilities. For example, many researchers focus on animals' understanding of intention, gaze, perspective, or knowledge (or rather, what another being has seen). Part of the difficulty in this line of research is that observed phenomena can often be explained as simple stimulus-response learning, as it is in the nature of any theorizers of mind to have to extrapolate internal mental states from observable behavior. Recently, most non-human theory of mind research has focused on monkeys and great apes, who are of most interest in the study of the evolution of human social cognition.

There has been some controversy over the interpretation of evidence purporting to show theory of mind ability—or inability—in animals. Two examples serve as demonstration: first, Povinelli et. al (1990)[1] presented chimpanzees with the choice of two experimenters from which to request food: one who had seen where food was hidden, and one who, by virtue of one of a variety of mechanisms (having a bucket or bag over his head; a blindfold over his eyes; or being turned away from the baiting) does not know, and can only guess. They found that the animals failed in most cases to differentially request food from the "knower." By contrast, Hare, Call, and Tomasello (2001)[2] found that subordinate chimpanzees were able to use the knowledge state of dominant rival chimpanzees to determine which container of hidden food they approached.

Tomasello and like-minded colleagues who originally argued that great apes did not have theory of mind have since reversed their position. Povinelli and his colleagues, however, maintain that Tomasello's group has misinterpreted the results of their experiments. They point out that most evidence in support of great ape theory of mind involves naturalistic settings to which the apes may have already adapted through past learning. Their "reinterpretation hypothesis" explains away all current evidence supporting attribution of mental states to others in chimpanzees as merely evidence of risk-based learning; that is, the chimpanzees learn through experience that certain behaviors in other chimpanzees have a probability of leading to certain responses, without necessarily attributing knowledge or other intentional states to those other chimpanzees. They therefore propose testing theory of mind abilities in great apes in novel, and not naturalistic settings. Kristin Andrews takes the reinterpretation hypothesis one step further, arguing that it implies that even the well-known false-belief test used to test children's theory of mind is susceptible to being interpreted as a result of learning.


See also

References

  1. Povinelli, D.J., Nelson, K.E., & Boysen, S.T. (1990). Inferences about guessing and knowing by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 104, 203-210.
  2. Hare, B., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2001). Do chimpanzees know what conspecifics know and do not know? Animal Behavior, 61, 139-151.

Further reading

Books

Papers

  • Emery, N.J. & Clayton, N.S. (2009). Comparative Social Cognition. Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 60: 87-113 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163526
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