Approaches to Cognition: Contrasts and Controversies

By Terry J. Knapp; Lynn C. Robertson | Go to book overview

6 Understanding Animal Cognition

Donald A. Riley
Michael F. Brown
Sonja I. Yoerg
University of California, Berkeley

Not many years ago, both the study of animal learning and of the reality and nature of cognitive processes in animals were at the center of psychology. Learning theorists held that principles of learning were sufficiently general that an understanding of the choice behavior of rats, pigeons, and monkeys in mazes and lever boxes would provide keys to the understanding of mental life and behavior in general including, of course, that of humans. The pervasiveness of this belief is too widely known to require documentation beyond noting the titles of the works by the dominant theorists of the time, such as Hull Principles of Behavior ( 1943), Tolman Purposive Behavior in Animals and Man ( 1932), and Skinner Behavior of Organisms ( 1938).

Sometime between 1955 and 1965 a revolution occurred in experimental psychology. Suddenly, the number of papers on human cognition increased dramatically and, although the number of papers in animal learning did not decrease, the central impact of this research on the field as a whole rapidly declined. This change reflected, in part, a decline of faith in the assumption that the nature of the human mind could be revealed by the study of rats' behavior in mazes.

Since the late 1970s, however, a part of the field of animal learning has developed into the study of cognition in animals and has undergone a renaissance. Roitblat, Bever, and Terrace ( 1984), in the preface to a collection of works in this area, date the beginning of this development as 1976, the year that a conference was held on cognitive processes in animals ( Hulse, Fowler, & Honig, 1978). In this chapter, we comment on three issues associated with this renaissance, all of which are concerned with the justification of research on cognition

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