We have been with our canine companions for a very long time. After all, dogs have been domesticated for thousands and thousands of years, with the result that they have played a critical role in the human experience. Despite this, there is still much that remains unknown about our canine companions. However, it should come as no surprise to learn that there are a lot of researchers putting a lot of effort into studying dogs, meaning that our understanding is growing bit by bit.
What Did German Scientists Discover about Dog Intelligence?
To name an example, German scientists have discovered evidence that dogs possess the ability to recognize the intent behind an action. If true, this would mean that dogs possess a critical component of theory of mind. Something that we like to associate with our own species. Regardless, it is important to note that this revelation is the product of a study following in the footsteps of other studies. Previously, researchers had confirmed that dogs could read human cues to some extent. However, it was never clear whether they could actually understand the intent behind human actions or not. Naturally, researchers looked into the topic by coming up with a suitable experiment.
To be exact, German researchers set up a study in which they would pass treats to a dog through a gap in a screen that separated the two parties. There were three possibilities for what would happen. One, the researcher would “accidentally” drop the treat on their side of the screen. Two, the researcher would be prevented from offering the treat by a blocked gap. Three, the researcher would pretend to offer a treat but withdraw it at the last moment. In every scenario, the dog wouldn’t get the treat. However, they wouldn’t get the treat for different reasons, thus offering a chance to see if they would show different responses to those different reasons. As it turned out, the dogs did indeed show different responses to those different reasons. In particular, the dogs reacted to the third scenario in a different way than they reacted to the first and second scenarios.
For example, they waited longer before going around the screen to get at the treat. Similarly, they were much likelier to stop wagging their tails, sit, and lie down. On the whole, this finding isn’t particularly surprising. However, it is nonetheless important confirmation that dogs can indeed distinguish between an intentional action and an unintentional action. Of course, this finding produces more questions that will have to be answered through more studies, which is as it should be. For starters, there is still the question of how dogs pick up this ability. Furthermore, there is the question of exactly which component of the researchers’ behavior that the dogs were actually picking up on.
Why Is the Theory of Mind Anyways?
Theory of mind is someone’s ability to think about their own mental states as well as other people’s mental states. As such, it is extremely important for basic human interaction. After all, if someone doesn’t have theory of mind, they wouldn’t even be able to understand that other people can have thoughts that are different from their thoughts. Something that would be a serious disadvantage in social interactions for obvious reasons. As for why theory of mind is called theory of mind, well, the gist of it is that we aren’t mind readers. Simply put, we know what is going on in our own mind because we have direct access to that information. Since we can’t read minds, we can’t know for sure what is going on in the minds of other people. Instead, we are effectively operating based on the theories that we have formed about the minds of other people, which are based on numerous sources of information such as our inferences, our observations, and our understanding of their personalities.
In humans, theory of mind isn’t something that is just there right from the very start. Interested individuals might have noticed that very young children tend to be very self-centered, so much so that they don’t seem to have much awareness of the mental states of other people. This is no coincidence. Humans don’t start out with theory of mind. Instead, we pick it up as we age, with the result that we continue to develop it as we continue to interact with other people. As a result, humans come to understand more and more complicated ideas over time. At the easy end of things, there is the idea that people can want something for different reasons. Meanwhile, at the difficult end of things, there is the idea that people can have hidden emotions, meaning that it is possible for them to act one way while actually feeling another way. These ideas are extremely important for human interaction. Unfortunately, it is possible for the development of theory of mind to go awry. For instance, people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia often show signs that they have issues when it comes to this particular ability.
Why Does This Matter?
Animals showing theory of mind is extremely important because we see it as a sign of high intelligence, which in turn, means that we see it as something that is strongly associated with ourselves. In fact, it is interesting to note that while there are a number of species that have showed indications that they possess theory of mind, there is still much controversy over exactly what is going on in those cases. After all, the seeming ability to think about other beings’ mental states isn’t necessarily the actual ability to think about other beings’ mental states. Instead, it could just be examples of associative learning, meaning that the animals are engaging in simple behavior-reading. This controversy is understandable. Humans can clear up such issues because we can clear up a great deal of confusion on such matters by communicating with one another. Meanwhile, it is possible for humans to communicate with animals to some extent, but such nuances of meaning are far beyond what we can manage under such circumstances. Regardless, while the study is fascinating, there is a lot more than needs to be done before we can say anything conclusive about whether dogs have theory of mind or not.