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Do pinyon jays engage in visual perspective taking? Mechanisms underlying behavior during food competition

Amy J Ort, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


When engaging in social interactions, humans are capable of recognizing that other individuals have different cognitive or emotional states than they do, and ability referred to as Theory of Mind (TOM). Despite almost 50 years of effort investigating the topic, however, it remains unclear whether any animal species possesses this ability. This ambiguity is due to a combination of conceptual and methodological issues rendering investigation of TOM incredibly challenging. At present, these problems have become so daunting that empirical research has largely been replaced with pessimistic philosophical speculation about the possibility of ever detecting TOM in a non-human species. This thesis uses a combination of empirical investigation and a critical review of the literature to develop a framework for making progress on this topic. In the first chapter, I review the current state of TOM research as well as considering historical trends. The main conclusion is that the lack of empirical progress is largely due to the anthropocentric approach of the researchers which relies on attempting to confirm the presence of TOM rather than falsifying other possible explanations for behavior. I make several suggestions for possible improvements to research strategies that include taking additional behavioral measurements and making specific predictions about other potential cognitive mechanisms. In the second chapter, I describe a study that applies the suggestions from the review chapter to test the framework that was developed. I used the most common TOM task (Hare et al. 2000) but measured additional variables and added several novel manipulations. These changes allowed for the disambiguation of several competing explanations for behavior during the typical TOM task. In this case, it was determined that pinyon jays were unlikely to be relying on TOM. Instead, they were probably using more general associative rules to solve the task The framework developed in this thesis has strong implications for the study of TOM. The additional measurements and manipulations could be applied to any existing TOM paradigm, possibly providing a means of answering the question of whether any non-human species possesses a theory of mind.

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Recommended Citation

Ort, Amy J, "Do pinyon jays engage in visual perspective taking? Mechanisms underlying behavior during food competition" (2015). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3738583.