Humans May Not Be The Only Animals That Think About Thinking
April Flowers for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Metacognition, or the ability to think about thinking, is not an ability solely limited to humans according to a new study. Scientists at Georgia State University and the University of Buffalo recently revealed that chimpanzees, humans’ closest relatives, also appear to have the ability.
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, is the work of Michael J. Beran and Bonnie M. Perdue of the Georgia State Language Research Center (LRC), and J. David Smith of the University at Buffalo.
“The demonstration of metacognition in nonhuman primates has important implications regarding the emergence of self-reflective mind during humans’ cognitive evolution,” the research team noted.
The ability to recognize one’s own cognitive states is called metacognition. An example of this ability is a game show contestant judging his or her own confidence level to decide if they should risk it all or “phone a friend.”
“There has been an intense debate in the scientific literature in recent years over whether metacognition is unique to humans,” Beran said.
The scientists at Georgia State’s LRC have trained chimpanzees to use a language-like system of symbols to name things. This gives researchers a novel way to investigate the animals’ states of knowing or not knowing.
For this study, the researchers tested the chimps on a task that required them to use their naming system to identify a food hidden in a location. If, for example, a banana was hidden, the chimpanzees would report that fact by touching the symbol for banana on their symbol keyboard. They would then get the food if they got it right.
The scientists then provided the chimpanzees with either complete or incomplete information about the identity of the food rewards.
Sometimes the animals had already seen the item available in the hidden location. They would immediately name the item by touching the correct symbol without going to look at the item in the hidden location to see what it was.
Other times, the chimps had no information about the hidden food item. This was because they had not seen any food yet on that trial or because even if they had seen a food item, it might not have been the one moved to the hidden location. In these cases, the chimps should have first gone to look in the hidden location before trying to name any food.
The end result was that the chimpanzees named items immediately and directly when they knew what was hidden. However, they sought out more information before naming when they did not already know.
“This pattern of behavior reflects a controlled information-seeking capacity that serves to support intelligent responding, and it strongly suggests that our closest living relative has metacognitive abilities closely related to those of humans,” the authors said.