Study: Animals Get Confused Too

A team of scientists has confirmed what many pet owners think they already know, that some other animals get confused, like humans, and clearly don't know what's going on.

It has been thought for a long time that confusion is a peculiarly human trait that we share with no other animals, except possibly apes. That's an important issue among scientists because confusion reflects the ability to search the brain for the right answer, a form of cognitive self awareness.

But researchers at three universities have found that humans probably don't own the patent to that ability. At least two other species, Rhesus monkeys and the bottlenose dolphin, also turn out to be a bit confused during particularly difficult trials, and their behavior is remarkably similar to the performance of humans who were taking the same trials, according to psychologist David Smith of the University at Buffalo and the university's Center for Cognitive Science, lead author of a report on the research in the December issue of The Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Smith and co-authors Wendy E. Shields, a psychologist at the University of Montana, and David A Washburn of the Language Research Center at Georgia State University, believe their research demonstrates that at least some other species share confusion with humans, but it's not clear how far down the intellectual ladder that goes.

Maybe it includes the family pooch, although there's no scientific evidence of that yet. So far the evidence suggests that some animals, including rats and pigeons, don't have it.

Students vs. Monkeys

"There's a very influential school of thought which says that only apes and humans could possibly have the capacity we are exploring," Smith says. "There's this view that the switch for consciousness and cognitive self awareness only turned on once in evolution, and that was in the line that led to apes and humans."

The researchers had reason to believe that might not be the case, he adds.

"Is this kind of cognitive self-awareness a general property of strong minds, or is it just a particular invention that happened only once?" he asks. "It seemed to us going in that it probably was not going to be a singular event because it could be a very useful thing for a creature to have a way of pausing and reflecting before deciding how to act."

That switch may well have turned on for other animals as well, giving them an evolutionary edge over less-gifted critters.

To find out, the researchers turned to a mainstay in the study of animal behavior, a group of Rhesus monkeys and a single bottlenose dolphin. The monkeys were ideal for the test because they had already been trained to use joysticks and a computer to demonstrate whether they thought some object on the screen was one thing, or another.

For this experiment, a third icon was added to the screen so the monkeys could decline to proceed with the trial, indicating they didn't know the answer and thus were confused.

In a role reversal, the researchers used undergraduate students as guinea pigs for the monkeys. The trials had to be pretty difficult, and the results had to be clear, or the experiment wouldn't work. The students helped establish the parameters because unlike the monkeys, they could respond verbally if they were confused, or didn't know the answer.

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