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.

So both the students and the monkeys were shown a series of four photographs, and then after a pause of a few minutes a single photo appeared on the screen. The goal was to determine whether the photograph was, or was not, among the four shown earlier. But they could also select an icon on the screen that said they didn't know and wanted out of the trial.

"It's a well-known thing in us and primates that we remember well the first item on a list, and the last item, but we remember more dimly the items in the middle of the list," Smith says.

Rats Don’t Measure Up

Both the monkeys and the humans had the same problem with the middle pictures, and opted out of the experiment if they couldn't figure out if the photo was on the list or not. Thus both were expressing confusion, or uncertainty, in almost precisely the same way.

"The patterns of results produced by humans and animals provide some of the closest human-animal similarities in performance ever reported in the comparative literature," he says.

The dolphin performed a similar test, although since it wasn't trained to operate joysticks it was asked to signal whether a tone heard through an underwater speaker was above, or below, a certain frequency. The dolphin came up with the right answer quickly when the tone was clearly above or below the frequency, but when it was too close for the animal to tell, it opted out of the experiment, just like the monkeys and the undergraduates.

Smith suspects that the state of confusion is shared among other animals who are not as "cognitively sophisticated" as humans, monkeys and a bottlenose dolphin, but when the researchers tried to prove it with rats, they failed.

It could be that the test simply didn't work, or the researchers didn't try hard enough, he says. Or it could mean rats are never confused. They just blunder through life, making instantaneous decisions even if they don't know what's going on.

All this may not come as a surprise to many readers.

Just about everybody has had a pet at one time or another that clearly seemed confused, but Smith cautions against reading too much into that. Anecdotes are just stories, he says, not science.

Of course, that can't possibly include my border collie. Whenever he's confused he exhibits the same behavior. He heads for his food dish.

If I did that every time I couldn't figure something out, I'd probably gain about 500 pounds a day.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.