Josep Call on inferential reasoning in animals

14 05 2016

Josep CallLast week York University organized a two-day-long meeting that brought philosophers, cognitive psychologists and animal cognition researchers together to discuss the developmental and phylogenetic origins of logical reasoning.

I keep saying this but it’s true – that Guelph is surrounded by other universities (three in Toronto, plus McMaster, Waterloo, and then further afield Queens, Western, Windsor and Brock), makes for a great intellectual climate here (as long as you’re willing to drive). The travel is a challenge though, and my pattern this day was the usual: I left home late; pared down my attendance to the bare minimum (one talk); spent the whole drive mulling over all the more sensible things I should be doing instead; but then was really pleased I’d made it.

Jake Beck opened the meeting, asking whether it’s most simple to conclude from some evidence that animals are like people, or instead to explain their behaviour in terms of simple mechanisms (even though these are different from our own).

Josep Call (who I had not realized was Spanish!) then spoke, presenting a lot of fascinating data, old and new, about the type of inferences many primates can be shown to make if they see food being placed in a small cup which things then happen to (his recurring paradigm, and a very neat one).

For example, if monkeys see one type of food being placed in a cup, but then when they reach in, another type is what they find there (thanks to using conjurers’ tricks), they search inside for longer (it would be so great to assess their facial expressions too: do they look surprised?). Also, if the filled cup is moved behind two screens after which it now proves to be empty, they search behind both screens equally for the missing food; but if it’s moved between two screens and its contents are revealed to them mid-way between the two, they will sensibly search behind the first screen if the cup was empty right after it, but search behind the second one if the cup was full then (a task that dogs utterly fail). All of this occurs in the first trial – there is no learning going on. Very cool.

As a welfare-related aside, he also mentioned in passing that different labs often get different results, something I’ve always wondered about given the poor effects of premature weaning, barren housing and stress on cognition (not something animal cognition researchers think about much)….