Dogs and babies prone to same classic mistake

By Ed Yong | September 4, 2009 10:00 am

Domestic dogs are very different from their wolf ancestors in their bodies and their behaviour. They’re more docile for a start. But man’s best friend has also evolved a curious sensitivity to our communication signals – a mental ability that sets them apart from wolves and that parallels the behaviour of human infants. Dogs and infants are even prone to making the same mistakes of perception.

Like infants less than a year old, dogs fail at a seemingly easy exercise called the “object permanence task”.  It goes like this: if you hide an object somewhere(say a ball under a cup) and let the baby retrieve it a few times, they will continue to search for it there even if you hide it somewhere else (say behind the sofa) and even if you do so in front of their eyes. Piaget, the legendary psychologist who discovered this behaviour, thought that it reflected a wildly different way of seeing the world.

More recently, Jozsef Topal suggested that it’s the influence of the adult experimenter that’s the key. By repeatedly pointing at the ball in the first hiding place, the adult enshrines a generalised rule in the infant’s mind. And infants, being programmed to learn from communicative signals, come to believe the adult’s instructions over the evidence of their own eyes (some people apparently never grow out of this, but I digress). Topal demonstrated this by showing that infants were much better at the task if the experimenters avoided social cues like calling the child’s name or eye contact.

And the same is true for domestic dogs. Topal tested a dozen adult dogs with a version of the hidden-object challenge, concealing toy behind one of two possible screens. If he called to the dogs by name, made eye contact and waved, the animals made the same errors that infants make on 75% of the trials. Without any of these signals, their scores improved and they only failed to realise the ball’s new location on 39% of the trials. Their error rate dropped even lower in completely non-social situations, where the ball was moved by pulling on a transparent string.

These results suggest that dogs and infant share a social mindset where certain cues prepare them to learn from humans. It’s not the case that the gestures and facial signs were just distracting for that would lead the animals or infants to search both hiding places equally – instead, they both preferred the one that the object was initially hidden behind.

Dogs, it seems, have a particular breed of social smarts even as inexperienced puppies and some scientists have suggested that these skills are adaptations that have developed over the last 10,000 years to allow dogs to better interact with their two-legged partners.

Indeed, the true scope of the dog’s mental abilities has probably been known to dog owners for some time, but has only really been confirmed through experiments in the last decade or so. If scientists point to one paper cup among many that hides a piece of food, dogs understand what they mean – they clearly understand the pointing gesture. If you’re not impressed, bear in mind that wolves can’t do it, great apes are flummoxed by the task and even babies fail before their first birthday.

Topal also found that wolves, even those reared by humans, don’t make the same errors that dogs do on the object permanence task. When he tested 10 wolves that had extensive experience with humans, they passed with flying colours regardless of whether their human partners were gesturing and calling, standing impassively or entirely absent. 

This difference between wolves and dogs is a striking one, but it doesn’t mean that one subspecies is cleverer than the other (or better at logic, as LiveScience purported). Instead, Topal thinks that the two species have different biases in the way they perceive the world, and those of dogs are superficially similar to those of human infants.

Note that I said “superficially” – it would be folly to suggest that dogs are reacting to the human signals in exactly the same way as our own infants do. Topal demonstrated this by repeating the tests, but swapping the experimenters around before the object was moved to a new location. This time, the infants still made the same errors that they did before but the dogs did not.

This suggests that the two species are doing different things.  Topal thinks that infants use the gestures as a sign that a learning opportunity is coming up. They’re about to get some info that they can generalise to new situations. As such, it doesn’t matter if the experimenter swaps around – they still think that the rule they’ve learnt about the ball behind a certain place will hold. Dogs, on the other hand, relate the signals they see to specific situations and to specific people – if the person making the funny actions changes, the rules of the game change too.

Reference: Topal, J., Gergely, G., Erdohegyi, A., Csibra, G., & Miklosi, A. (2009). Differential Sensitivity to Human Communication in Dogs, Wolves, and Human Infants Science, 325 (5945), 1269-1272 DOI: 10.1126/science.1176960

Images: Dog by John Haslam

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Comments (16)

  1. Isn’t this, then, after all, more of a test of influence, rather than perception? By having a dominating human (ie, in total control of the context) indoctrinate a belief, is it any wonder that the subject tries the path of the belief with such ease? It’d be interesting to re-run this experiment but with varying degrees of influential adult experimenter: first a student, then a proper adult scientist, then Derren Brown or Adolph Hitler, then Tony Robbins or Osama Bin Laden. The apparent lack of permanence of the object might well display a variation.

  2. Pierce R. Butler

    … dogs … clearly understand the pointing gesture.
    I used to think that was the case with my pup, but lately I lean toward the idea that he thinks I’m throwing something.

  3. Tony Jeremiah

    Like infants less than a year old, dogs fail at a seemingly easy exercise called the “object permanence task”. It goes like this: if you hide an object somewhere(say a ball under a cup) and let the baby retrieve it a few times, they will continue to search for it there even if you hide it somewhere else (say behind the sofa) and even if you do so in front of their eyes.
    There are actually two slightly different cognitive processes described here (one more complex than the other developmentally speaking): object permanence and the A-NoT-B error.
    Object permanence is the understanding that objects continue to exist when not in view. An indication that object permanence has been achieved (which some research suggests happens around 2.5-3.5 months), is when infants begin to actively search for objects hidden from view. As an example, you show an infant a toy; it looks at it; you place something in front of the toy; if the infant stops looking at it, it has has not achieved object permanence, but if it attempts to move the object out of the way to retrieve the toy, it has achieved object permanence.
    The A-Not-B Error (task) is a more complex cognitive task that depends on object permanence. The task is such that a researcher hides an object at location A several times, and each time the infant retrieves it. Then at some randomly chosen interval, the researcher places the object at B. The error (happening around 10 months) occurs when the infant reaches for the object where it was originally located (A) and not where it is now (B). The error disappears starting around 12 months, with one simple explanation being that developmental changes in the brain allow infants to take in more information from their surroundings.
    Jozsef Topal suggested that it’s the influence of the adult experimenter that’s the key. By repeatedly pointing at the ball in the first hiding place, the adult enshrines a generalised rule in the infant’s mind. And infants, being programmed to learn from communicative signals, come to believe the adult’s instructions over the evidence of their own eyes (some people apparently never grow out of this, but I digress). Topal demonstrated this by showing that infants were much better at the task if the experimenters avoided social cues like calling the child’s name or eye contact.
    Very interesting social explanation for the A-not-B error I’ve not seen before. Although, it does generally falls in line with the dynamics systems theory of the task, which essentially says the infant has to take into consideration many personal and situational factors when performing the task. For example, 10-month-olds (who usually show the A-Not-B error) perform better when the researcher does not build up the habit of having infants reach for location A, makes location A look quite different from location B, and has the infant change body position when the object is switched to B.
    Topal also found that wolves, even those reared by humans, don’t make the same errors that dogs do on the object permanence task. When he tested 10 wolves that had extensive experience with humans, they passed with flying colours regardless of whether their human partners were gesturing and calling, standing impassively or entirely absent.
    So this would seem to suggest that wolves pay less attention to human (social) cues and more attention to environmental cues when performing the task. However, it’s difficult to tell from this info, whether there’s some evolutionary phenomenon happening here, or, whether there’s a systematic difference in social interactions between humans and wolves and between humans and ‘dogs’ over the course of their lifetime that explains the difference, similar to differences in social interactions among humans that can occur as a consequence of race, gender, social class, etc that can influence other performance-related phenomena.
    An evolutionary explanation is more likely (for wolves) if it could be shown that regardless of amount of human exposure the wolves have had (e.g., 1 vs 5 vs 10 years), there’s no difference in error rates on the A-Not-B task, while the error rates vary with human exposure with dogs. Although such an experiment still seems to lend itself to the hypothesis that there’ssome type of social learning interaction difference between humans and wolves and humans and dogs that accounts for the performance differences.

  4. Re dogs understanding ‘pointing’ — wolves ‘point’ with their muzzles; it’s part of how they coordinate pack hunts.
    The leap that dogs have made is not to the entire concept of pointing, but simply that a human arm or finger works like a canine nose for pointing purposes.
    Tony: thanks for the clarification re object permanence and ‘a-not-b’.

  5. Ed Yong

    Tony, good points well made. Thanks for the clarification.

  6. doug l

    Very interesting look. It would seem a very sensible adaptation for an animal whose success depends on their getting-by or getting along with the human social structure from which they gain some benefit, evidently. Could it be a conserved infant/puppy trait that the ancestral canines had that, when kept/expressed into adulthood, lessens the drive to compete for dominance and mating? Of course it’s a question in some cases if humans themselves have gotten beyond the kill eat screw script we attribute to our brutish non-human cohorts. I’ve always thought that if we wish to understand people we need only to understand monkeys, but wolves and dogs occupy a realm that humans almost everywhere find familiar and comfortable.
    Cheers.

  7. Brownian

    I can see the wolves in this experiment watching their domesticated chums fail, clucking their tongues and saying “we told you something like this would happen if you kept hanging around those bipedal things.”

  8. llewelly

    If you examine the picture of the baby carefully, you will notice a small bloody spot near the top of the baby’s forehead. This spot clearly shows where the GOVERNMENT INSERTED THEIR MIND-CONTROL CHIP.

  9. I’m convinced that my cat knows where I’m looking. When she’s in a social/hungry mood (which is generally all the time she’s awake) she will try to sit on whatever I’m doing at the time – a book, sheet music, in front of my screen, etc.
    She’s really annoying.
    Yesterday I reorganized my computer room so everything was in a different place, but she almost immediately sat down in front of the screen again.

  10. The piece looks at what happens to the two sexes in extreme old age and why women are more likely to get there but why the men who do tend to be fitter. I consider the diseases that affect the oldest old – cancer, chronic diseases and Alzheimer’s are rare, but other forms of dementia and arthritis are common. And I look at our growing knowledge of the “centenarian genome” and what it tells us about the ageing process.

  11. I keep telling my boyfriend, who likes dogs, that having a dog is like having a toddler that never grows up! They tear stuff up, they get loud in the most awkward situations, they eat things that require a trip to poison control, and they constantly need to be watched, distracted and entertained.
    Cats are the perfect pet. They’re around if you need them, but perfectly content to leave you the hell alone if you don’t. Unless you happen to have chicken or tuna.
    This article just shows that there’s a reason that dogs and babies are so much alike! QED, boyfriend!

  12. windy

    “Dogs and babies prone to same classic mistake”
    But have they ever started a land war in Asia?

  13. Lisa the GP

    My Siamese cats did not ‘get’ pointing at first. But after a little bit of work (pointing at the location of treats), they were able to learn what it meant.
    Of additional interest, once the first cat ‘got it’, the second ‘got it’ by watching the first.
    They also understood mirrors. My cat once had an aphid on his head as he walked past a mirror. He glanced at the mirror, then double-took and stopped. He looked at himself in the mirror, and then reached up with his paw and wiped the aphid off his head. Then he walked on. I think this clearly indicated that he recognized the cat in the mirror as himself and responded to seeing the aphid rather than to suddenly feeling it on his head.
    Also if he saw me in the mirror with something he wanted in hand, he’d immediately turn around and come to me to get it, without any attempt to get it out of the ‘me’ in the mirror.

  14. Amaze! Thank you! I constantly wished to produce in my internet site a thing like that. Can I take element of the publish to my blog?

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