Do Monkeys Know When They Don’t Know?

Do monkeys bathe for pleasure, or because the warm waters are ideal for introspection?

Communication with animals is difficult. It has been over one hundred years since Pavlov, and our main form of inter-species communication remains food pellets. Philosophical aphorisms like Wittgenstein’s “If a lion could talk, we would not be able to understand him” are either shown to obtain daily in research labs, or are many years from being challenged.

Still, a study conducted by Smith and Beran, presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has revealed behaviour in macaque monkeys that would seem to betoken the capacity to experience doubt– opening a window into the mental lives of these animals.

Self-doubt is an interesting mental state in that it necessitates that the subject be capable of awareness of the degree to which she is confident in her belief that p. Creatures that are incapable of relating to their knowledge with degrees of confidence cannot experience self-doubt.

The problem, of course, is in finding ways to assess self-doubt in non-humans. Smith and Beran believe that they have found an ideal model for assessing this very mental feature. Macaque monkeys are presented with a video game where they need to determine whether or not a represented cube is sparse or dense; receiving a food pellet when they choose correctly, and receiving no pellet and suffering a game freeze of 10 seconds or so when they choose incorrectly.

Some of the cubes are deliberately vague– human subjects and macaque monkeys would both find difficulty in identifying them as sparse or dense. The monkeys are now provided with a third choice– a question mark, which moves the screen immediately on to the next question with no time-out. Monkeys were shown to choose the “?” option with the same regularity as humans, demonstrating that they can (a) assess the confidence that they feel in getting the answer right and (b) discriminating between the good of risking a time-out and the good in instantly proceeding to the next (potentially easier) question.

Some questions remain however: chiefly, is it really self-doubt that determines whether the monkey chooses the “?” option, or do the monkeys merely identify some cubes as being “?” cubes, cubes with no just desert?

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Read more at John Lidwell-Durnin’s blog Consider the Bitter Gourd

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