November 4, 2010

two key aspects to successful comparative psychology research

This semester, I'm taking a seminar on Comparative Psychology, and have found myself to be repeatedly frustrated with an overwhelming majority of the studies we have read. Maybe I'm becoming too opinionated of a reader, but it seems to me that two fundamental things are missing from a lot of the studies. When trying to understand whether or not non-human subjects possess specific psychological abilities (e.g. theory of mind, self-recognition, reciprocal altruism), you must keep two things in mind. First, animals may not perform the behaviors we are looking for without adequate motivation to do so. Secondly, completely novel situations may provoke an animal to react in a way in which they would not customarily react. Therefore, it is important to provide situations that are somewhat familiar to ones they might encounter in their day-to-day lives in their natural, environment to which their species has adapted (unless, of course, using a novel situation removes a bias in the experiment).

(1) Experimenters should provide adequate motivation for the subject to elicit behavior: In an attempt to ascertain whether or not chimps possessed the ability to display the most efficient search technique available using logic (Call & Carpenter, 2001), the experimenters baited one of three tubes with a reward and gave the subjects opportunity to search for it. They called systematic/exhaustive search techniques "inefficient", but without any time or disciplinary motivation, why shouldn't the subjects perform exhaustive searches? As a human, it would be smart to do so. If there were no costs for me to check every option for a reward 2-3 times, why wouldn't I? After all, why should I assume there is only one reward? Maybe if I only had a certain amount of time before my options were taken away, I would be forced to employ a more efficient strategy. Perhaps in this study, after 60 seconds in each trial, the experimenter should have covered the apparatus, thus ending the trial. Eventually, the chimpanzees would realize they had limited time to make their best attempt at finding the food reward, and begin employing more logical/"efficient" strategies. If they did not, then perhaps we could assume they do not have the potential to do so.

(2) Studies should provide situations that are relevant to the natural habitat of the subject species: A study in 2005 (Hattori & Kuroshima) attempted to decipher whether or not Capuchin monkeys possess the ability to cooperate with one another to accomplish a common goal. The results of their study asserted that the monkeys spent a significantly greater amount of time looking at their partner when they needed help on a task. This result conflicted with previous studies (Visalberghi 1997; Visalberghi, et al. 2000) that had failed to provide any evidence of communication during cooperative tasks. The difference here is that the 2005 study used a task that was more intuitive for Capuchin monkeys, whereas the earlier studies used more unfamiliar scenarios. In the earlier studies, the monkeys may have just been more confused about the task in general, and did not fully understand that it required their partner's cooperation. In the end, laboratories are only logistic necessities, and it is more useful to understand whether or not animals can perform in their natural environments.

Basically, in order to conclude that a subject with whom you cannot communicate with does not possess specific mental abilities, you must design an experiment that will do its best to elicit it. Only then can you conclude that the subject does or does not have such capabilities.

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