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on thinking like them to learn how they think

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An interesting conundrum from Clive Wynne’s book Do Animals Think?

First, imagine you are given four cards and told to test the rule that a card with a vowel on one side must have an even number on the other side. Let’s say the cards in front of you show an E, a K, a 7 and a 4. Which would you turn over? Most people find this a very difficult problem. Most turn over the E and some also turn over the 4. And yet the 4 can tell you nothing: Who cares what’s on the other side of an even number? The rule being tested does not say that the flip-side of an even-numbered card can not be a consonant, only that the flip-side of a card with a vowel cannot be an odd number. So you would learn nothing by turning over the 4. The correct answer is to turn over the E [see if the vowel has an even number on its reverse] and the 7 [check that there’s no vowel there]. Only about 5% even of the college-educated population give the right answer to this one. It’s a tough logical nut to crack.

Now consider this problem. Imagine that you are shown four people and told to test the rule that a person must be over the age of twenty-one to drink beer. One person is drinking Coke, one is drinking beer, the third is twenty-three years old, and the fourth, fifteen. Whom must you check [what they are drinking or what age they are] to ensure that the rule is being followed? Here nobody has any trouble. We don’t care what the twenty-three-year-old drinks, nor what age the Coke drinker is, but we do need to check the age of the beer drinker and the beverage of the fifteen-year-old. Nothing could be simpler. Hardly anybody gets this one wrong.

And yet logically these are absolutely identical  problems. There is no difference in the type of reasoning required to solve these two puzzles. Why the big difference in performance?

Wynne, a psychologist with a strong interest in, and a wide knowledge of, research in other-species reasoning, is making a very important point with application to the testing of other animals and their ability to solve problems. It’s hopefully obvious that the reason we do so much better with the second problem is that it’s a recognizable real-world problem about obeying the rules and not cheating or doing the ‘wrong thing’. We’re much more motivated to come to a quick and accurate solution than with the much more abstract first problem. So when we set problems for other species to solve, we need to understand that what motivates them to solve a problem might be very different to what motivates humans.

Wynne’s book, which I was motivated to read as further background to, and an extension of, my animals r us post, makes for excellent reading, as he’s healthily sceptical of, and pokes some holes in, research claims about other-species reasoning and mental processes, such as they are. He also provides some fascinating information, scientific and historical, about, inter alia, bats, bees and pigeons. My only quibble, perhaps a minor one, is that, both in the title of his book and throughout the writing, he refers to animals as though we’re not one of them. Not that he has any truck with the ‘we’re special and the proper end of evolution’ view. In fact I really don’t know why he writes of animals in this way – it’s as if he’s half-convinced that our development of language and our complex ‘theories of mind’ have really taken us to some level beyond the mammalian. They haven’t. We’ll never stop being mammals, though we’ll continue to amaze ourselves with what we can do with the difference between ourselves and other mammals.

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Written by stewart henderson

September 14, 2012 at 8:33 am

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