Lying Apes, Really?!
Anyone who has owned a cat will know that they’re crafty little creatures. They’re adept at using their feline guile to get their own way. But are they really deceiving us in the same way that we humans do?
Professor Richard Byrne, a psychologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland has been studying deception in far closer relatives – the primates. He found an interesting pattern. The bigger the brain – or at least the bigger the neocortex (the bit that’s involved with ‘higher functions’ like language) – the more often the primate is deceptive. But, says Byrne, there’s a difference between learning some kind of trick that gets you what you want, be it a banana or a mate, and setting out to deceive, knowing the effect your actions will have on someone else.
“You can learn from behaviour without understanding how it works,” says Byrne.
Byrne looked at descriptions of primate behaviour in lots of studies and found that in many cases, the animal could have just learned that doing achieved their goal – it got them their food. But in a few cases it was hard to imagine that a trick had simply been learned. In those cases, the animals knew what they were doing – it appeared as if they knew they were being deceptive.
All of those cases were confined to the great apes, like chimps and gorillas. “What is rather special about the apes is how clever they are with their hands,” says Byrne.
“Apes can enlarge their repertoire of manual skills through experience, but also by observation. And they could infer another’s goals from what they can see. Once these apes have a way of inferring goals and intentions, they might later work out how to manipulate them.”
So do cats know what they’re up to? “I did a broadcast on BBC radio and unwisely said to listeners, ‘You might look out for this sort of thing in your pets’.
The radio station was deluged with people giving extremely detailed examples of deception by dogs and cats. But in all those cases you could see how the behaviour could be learnt. A cat or dog may do things that seem to be deceptive, but they don’t really understand what we’re thinking.”
Source: BBC Knowledge