Why Do Some Scientists Misrepresent the Cognitive Abilities of Animals?

The More We Misrepresent a Dog's Cognitive Abilities the More They Suffer.

Originally published in slightly different form on April 26, 2010 at PsychologyToday.com.

Is Everything Animals Do Based on a Mental Thought Process?

In a new blog here at PsychologyToday.com—The Hidden Lives of Animals: Understanding Animal BehaviorJonathan Balcombe, Ph. D., writes, “For much of the twentieth century, science didn’t view animals as thinking, feeling beings. Today that’s all changed. Science has emerged from what American neuroscientist Jaak Panskepp has termed its ‘terminal agnosticism’ towards animal experience.”

Actually, scientists have viewed animals as “thinking beings” for quite some time. The literature on animal behavior is rife with explanations based on thought: animals are said to know their “rank and status” in a pecking order, they supposedly “mark their territories,” “use their urine to send messages,” and when threatened they’re said to “make themselves look bigger” to their attackers, etc. In fact, if we’re to believe the literature, nearly everything animals do is based on some kind of mental thought process.

However, when it comes to cognitive scientists (the men and women who study comparative cognition), Balcombe is correct. They’ve been very careful about not imputing cognitive and emotional abilities to their animal subjects unless there’s enough data to support such conclusions. After all, their job is to discover what cognitive abilities animals do and don’t have, then compare those abilities to ours. And, as scientists, they have to be as careful and assiduous about this task as possible. And from all serious studies done on the subject, there seems to be a distinct difference between a feeling being (i.e., a non-human animal), and a “thinking, feeling” being (i.e.. humans and perhaps some cetaceans).

So, yes, animals feel things But they do they think?

Here We Go

In “Vulture Culture,” his first article here, Balcombe starts off with a description of a female vulture he once observed at an animal-welfare event. “She wasn’t smelly or scruffy. She looked immaculate. She had a presence. If I had to choose one word to describe her it would be dignified. She wasn’t an object but a subject—a thinking, feeling being.”

Feeling, yes. But thinking? Really?

“Elephants,” he writes, “keep mental tabs on thirty or more compatriots. Baboons bereave the loss of an infant and seek therapy by expanding their social networks. Caged starlings become pessimistic and free ones optimistic. Rats know what they know and don’t know. Scrub jays remember the what/where/when of a past event. Domestic dogs object to unfair treatment. And chimps trounce humans in a short-term memory task.”

Most of these statements are heavily-skewed, ideological interpretations, not actual hard scientific facts. And I think they can and should be looked at from a more parsimonious (and thus more scientific) point of view.

As a dog trainer, I’ve already addressed the fallacy that “domestic dogs object to unfair treatment” in my article “Tuning In to Your Dog’s Emotions.” Let me just add that the idea of “inequity aversion” (the ability to object when one is being treated unfairly) comes from a questionable paper done by two experimental economists. They came up with this idea, not by doing any experimental research of their own, but by re-interpreting data from other studies, already available, and then essentially ignoring anything that didn’t fit their theory. (“The Rhetoric of Inequity Aversion,” Avner Shaked, Economics Department, Bonn University, 1 March 2005.)

Frans de Waal of Emory University, then applied this idea to monkeys. (De Waal defines himself as someone whose goal is to find as many commonalities between humans and monkeys as possible.) De Waal admitted that his experiment with captive monkeys was flawed since it probably couldn’t be applied to animals in the wild.

However, when this flawed, though possibly valid (in terms of human social dynamics), concept from experimental economics, was applied to chimps, scientists at the Max Planck Institute came to a very different conclusion: to them it was about expectation, not inequity. (“Are apes really inequity averse?”, Josep Call and Michael Tomasello, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, September, 2006.)

Meanwhile, another researcher, Fredericke Range, at “The Clever Dogs Lab” at the University of Vienna, compounded what I view as De Waal’s mistake even further by applying this already stretched hypothesis to domesticated dogs. [1]

Does Dr. Balcombe know the pedigree of this idea?

Thoughts vs Emotions, Grief vs Loss

As for elephants keeping mental tabs on their companions, it’s not uncommon for most social mammals, even birds, to have a visceral awareness of the salient features of their environment. Birds don’t need to be able to do math to know when an egg is missing. Certainly elephants would be capable of being aware of the presence or absence of group members without needing to use a conscious mental thought process.

As for baboons, they may feel the emotional shock as well as the visceral loss that the death of an infant would engender, but is that same thing as grief? Certainly when an animal is giving and receiving physical comfort from its offspring, and the offspring’s physical and energetic presence is gone (not to mention the flow of oxytocin inherent to intimacy involved in that kind of emotional connection), any animal would seek some form of comfort or replacement. Is that the same thing as “seeking therapy?”

Marc Bekoff, whom I used to admire, has written a number or articles here, putting forth a similar perspective to Balcombe’s. He used to be circumspect and scientific in his writings, but now often writes that animals can feel grief, which I think is also a mistake.

The problem is that real grief requires not just the feelings of shock and loss, which most animals (at least birds and mammals) are capable of experiencing; it also requires a corresponding mental thought process. After all, humans have the capacity to explain things to ourselves, we can time travel, mentally, to the future and tell ourselves that “time heals all wounds,” or fondly remember past events, or talk it over with friends and relatives, we can read Kubler-Ross, or just mentally sort things out. But if an animal doesn’t have any of those capacities, then it seems to me that their feelings may be all the more painful and traumatic.

Whose heart wouldn’t go out to such a being?

So in my view, by labeling the animal’s experience “grief,” and by failing to discuss what serious cognitive scientists tell us is the real nature of animal cognition—which doesn’t include the ability to engage in internal narrative, perspective-taking, mental time travel, math or language, etc.—, we defeat our own purpose.

In my experience, as a dog trainer of over 20 years, I’ve found that the more that people believe dogs do things for reasons (i.e., the more people believe that their dogs can think), the more those dogs tend to be harshly punished or mistreated: “He knows what he did is wrong!”

On the other hand, the more we understand that dogs are emotional, and that they can feel things very deeply, but can’t think (at least not anything like the way we do), we the kinder we tend to be toward them.

I think we should concentrate on the one thing we really share with animals: simple emotions. That’s the common ground. The more we inflate or shade the truth about animal cognition, the more animals will suffer.


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1) Inequity Aversion Negatively Affects Tolerance and Contact-Seeking Behaviours towards Partner and ExperimenterDésirée Brucks,* Jennifer L. Essler, Sarah Marshall-Pescini, and Friederike Range

“Although subjects did not react to this quality inequity during the test, we did find reduced durations of food sharing in the subsequent tolerance test, indicating that dogs perceived the inequity but were not able to react to it in the test context. Moreover, subjects avoided their partner and the experimenter more during the free interaction time following unequal compared to equal treatment. Despite the clear behavioural reactions to inequity, we could not detect any changes in heart rate. Results suggest that inequity aversion might in fact be mediated by simple emotional mechanisms: sharing a negative experience, like inequity, might reduce future cooperation by decreasing the likelihood of proximity being maintained between partners.“

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