A good study so why quibble?

Because it is fun and improves my mind.  Here is an excellent example of social praxis demonstrated in simians:  PLOSone has a report of another experimental studies designed to investigate whether great apes, e.g., chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans, can distinguish another’s ‘false beliefs’ and act upon that discernment to help them. The researchers used procedures adapted from human studies that demonstrated some understanding of another’s false beliefs at 18 months of age and good understanding by age 3 or 4 years old. The researchers were very diligent in their design and implementation in order to ensure validity and reliability; I will give only a bare outline before going on to deeper issues. You can read for yourself at: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0173793

The basic set-up is this: Actor A comes into the room and puts an object in box 1 and then leaves the room. Actor B comes into the room and switches the object to box 2 and then leaves. Actor A returns. Which box does he go to? The subject has watched this whole scenario knows the object is in box 2 but also, if socially cognizant, knows that actor A believes the object to be box 1. In some protocols the visual gaze preference is measured, i.e., how long the subject looks at agent 1, box 1 and box 2, the assumption of this measure of passive action being that gazing more at box 2 shows awareness of the false belief. A more robust protocol is for the subject to move and help actor A open the correct box. And indeed the results show that young humans and the great apes move to show actor A the true location of the object, trying to help by correcting the false belief. More on this in a bit.

The basic set-up is also modified so that after placing the object in box 1, actor A stays in the room and watches actor B come in and move the object to box 2. I really like this variant; it shows the ingeniousness of scientists in clarifying the data’s interpretation.. When actor A goes to box 1 and tries to open it, little humans and great apes try to help him open box 1, seeming then to understand that actor A knows where the object is but wants to open box 1 for some other purpose. In another variation, if actor A opens box 1 and looks puzzled at not finding what was desired, subjects helped focus on box 2 and so retrieve the object.


Now when was the last time you had your keys?

I think this is a great study along the lines Frans de Waal calls for to help us understand how smart other animals are, and I have some quibbles and want to think about further examples of distinguishing false beliefs from human cultural and symbolic behavior. My first quibble is that in the abstract the researchers state that their results demonstrate that this type of social cognition and understanding, which had been thought to be exclusively human, might now be found in other animals. “Great apes thus may possess at least some basic understanding that an agent’s actions are based on her beliefs about reality. Hence, such understanding might not be the exclusive province of the human species.” If you have followed this blog at all, you know what my challenge will be. What anthropodenialist (see 4/8/16 post on de Waal) and all too precious human assumed (do I detect a false belief there?) this was to be found in humans only? Not good, especially in this day and age when we understand that human evolution includes no discontinuities with our ancestors. Research like this is not really changing our view of who we are (or at least it shouldn’t be) but rather reveals how the biological roots of our humanity grew our species.

Secondly, here is perhaps an obviously semantic quibble: Why call this false ‘belief’ when a much better word would be ‘assumption’, thereby reserving the word ‘belief’ for some thought formed with less ties to sensory data? Consider two known features here, mirroring and the kinesic communication of intent (a basic form of empathy). Mirroring cells in at least the primate cortex are motor cells that fire when the animal sees another perform an action (see many posts here about this, especially my most popular post of all time on the arcuate fasciculus, mirror cells, and memes). In the experiments described above, the subject animal, be it human or great ape, would respond through mirroring to the reappearance of actor A when approaching a box. Further, some studies have suggested that mirror cells are sensitive to the other’s intention, e.g., seeing the other pick up a cup, different cells fire when the other is going to drink from it as opposed to doing some other unrelated task. So the subject animal needs only mirroring and basic empathy coupled with environmental object mapping (quite evident in the rat brain) to identify the false assumption; the impulse to help would be again a basic empathic action that forms the incipient base of social praxis. (Remember watching somebody struggle to do something and your impulse to grab the object and do it for them?) The mirroring system may go a long way in offering some understanding of this social cognition, and the assumption of continuity in the perceptual world along with communicated intent is a basic, so that belief is not really a construct needed to understand this.


I always thought god was a bonobo, and now you tell me . . .

What about the broader, deeper phenomena of detecting (and responding to) another’s perceived false beliefs, real beliefs about abstract matters rather than perceptual data? We humans, at least, seem to have a talent for apprising others of their false beliefs. You know, like someone just knows I am going to hell because of my false beliefs? Or an example of more consequence, people who deny scientific findings because why? The false beliefs of scientists, of course, thereby exposing their own false beliefs, also called ignorance, about the nature and process of science. So much of our world, the human Umvelt, is dominated by symbolic information displaced in time and space, abstracted from experience and formulated with, at times, great creative license, that finding agreement rather than parsing others’ mistakes might seem the challenge. That, of course, is a function of culture, however, and oh, wait, is that part and parcel of the scientific method, and I hasten to add, the basis of democracy? Now, about the emperor’s new clothes . . .

An interesting study and my quibble

So researchers have demonstrated through an experiment that apes understand when another has a ‘false belief’, i.e., someone believes something that is not true. This seems to be applied to the concrete here and now more than to tax policy but more on that later. The researchers made a video and showed it to apes of a man holding a rock, then a man in a gorilla suit takes it from him and puts it under a box. The man leaves and the gorilla puts the rock under a second box and then takes it away altogether. When the first man returns, the apes watching are found to anticipate that he will go to the first and now empty box through eye tracking technology (they look at the man and first box repeatedly), thereby showing that they understand another’s perspective and that it can be wrong. One link is the Duke Chronicle: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2016/10/duke-study-shows-apes-have-a-cognitive-ability-thought-to-be-unique-to-humans


So you can’t find your rock? Did you look under the other box? In your closet?

This is an interesting albeit limited finding. I like the effort to show a more sophisticated side to animal minds, but here’s my quibble. Why call this a ‘false belief’ rather than a ‘false assumption’? If linguists were studying humans in this regard, we would talk about contextual knowledge and pragmatic processes. That apes (and many other animals for that matter) understand another’s false assumption is no real surprise, so this study provides another confirming detail. Frans de Waal has documented many instances of apes using such perspective taking and knowledge to their advantage in his books, especially the latest one, Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Animals Are?  Consider his account when one chimp lower in the pecking order was allowed to see through a window where bananas were hidden and then when he and the whole group were released to find the food ran somewhere else and then later returned by himself to enjoy the bananas. If he had gone straight to them, an alpha male would have taken them. He promoted the assumption that he did not know where the bananas were. Did the other apes ‘believe’ he was as ignorant as they were? Mimicking false beliefs is strategically a ‘feint’ that dogs do all the time in play, going one way to trick the other in assuming one intent and then quickly changing course, as do humans playing a sport. Manipulation through hiding intent or understanding another’s false assumption/belief is, I think, common in the animal kingdom, including humans pushing a fraudulent sales deal. Our more powerful symbolic and cultural capabilities make this even more apparent and problematic.

Back to false beliefs and tax policy. I am aware of the false belief that reducing taxes on the wealthy produces more jobs; that this tax reduction does not increase jobs has been demonstrated repeatedly at the state and national level; the data are clear. This is no rock under the box situation though, so understanding another’s false belief is not so helpful because of the persistence of the false belief in the face of evidence. Surely the human or ape looking under the box to find nothing would abandon that assumption. For tax policy though, some continue to insist the rock is under the box even though it is clearly not there. This marks a difference between an assumption and a belief wherein the persistence is due to faulty reality testing by ignoring data so as to find an advantage in other ways.

I recently saw a study that showed climate change deniers were associated more with the Republican party than the Democratic one. Why? A friend’s family of origin teaches their younger children that evolution is wrong. Why? At least in part to be consistent with their religious beliefs, but they still use all the medical tools evolutionary science bestows upon us. I recognize these as false beliefs more than false assumptions because they persist in the bright light of empiricism. Yes, each of us has a powerful world view that shapes our interpretation and assembly of data, but empirical thinking, from cooking, early tools and agriculture through the scientific revolution in the 16th century to now, is our most powerful perspective. Remember a few years back when a group of young, disrespectful, stupidly self-involved American tourists climbed a sacred mountain in, I think, Indonesia, and stripped naked for their selfies? Then they were arrested for desecrating a sacred place (ok so far) and causing an earthquake (oops, slipped over the positivistic border there). I had a conversation with a friend who contradicted me when I said they did not cause the earthquake saying that maybe the indigenous people there were on to something, maybe the mountain god was angry and that we do not understand all that goes on in this world (now there’s a safe assumption I can endorse). Is there no such thing as superstition then? I knock on wood toward off bad events but I know that is a superstition. We do not understand everything but we do understand somethings very well. I am prepared to believe in magic and miracles and apprehension of unknown things by special talents but I can also reject false assumptions and beliefs. Let me not begin a discussion of religious beliefs, because we humans with our fecund symbolic capabilities not only make up the weirdest stuff (remember the Atargatis?) but we lose track of our creations and mistake them for objective truth. Many religious minded people ‘recognize’ the false beliefs of other religions. Really? Better travel on from there.


I just don’t know what to believe anymore. Maybe I should study the matter empirically.