Are We the Only Animals That Understand Ignorance?

Jul 31, 2016

By Ed Yong

You’re holding a surprise party for a friend. The door opens, the lights flick on, everyone leaps out… and your friend stands there silent and unmoved. Now, you’re the one who’s surprised. You assumed she had no idea, and based on that, you made a (wrong) prediction about how she would react. You were counting on her ignorance. This ability to understand that someone else might be missing certain information about the world comes so naturally to us that describing it feels mundane and trite.

And yet, according to two psychologists, it’s a skill that only humans have. “We think monkeys can’t do that,” says Alia Martin from Victoria University of Wellington.

This claim is the latest volley in a long debate about how our fellow primates understand each other. Of particular interest is the question: Do they have a “theory of mind”—an understanding that others have their own mental states, their own beliefs and desires, their own ways of viewing the world?


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9 comments on “Are We the Only Animals That Understand Ignorance?

  • @OP – Are We the Only Animals That Understand Ignorance?

    Humans have a very long history of ASSUMING that other animals do not share various human abilities – only to be proved wrong when modern observation techniques and technologies give detailed information in studies!

    That has already been been shown with tool use and with communication.

    I would be amazed if if those species who hunt in groups, or act as ambush predators, did not show some understanding of the ignorance of their tactics or of their presence, in the hunted.

    In some species like Dolphins, some group/family members have specialist skills and specialist roles, which are recognised by others.

    Many hunting species recognise the vulnerability of the inexperienced young of their prey.



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  • 3
    Ted Foureagles says:

    My cat’s favorite game was to sit atop our glass dining table and incite the puppy to repeatedly jump up and bang her nose on the underside.



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  • Ted Foureagles #3
    Aug 2, 2016 at 10:53 am

    My cat’s favorite game was to sit atop our glass dining table and incite the puppy to repeatedly jump up and bang her nose on the underside.

    Some years ago my neighbour had a young Tom cat and a Retriever puppy only a few months old.

    The cat would tease the puppy and then jump up on to the branch of an apple tree in the garden which was just out of reach of the puppy.

    Imagine his surprise when as the puppy grew, a couple of months later, the pup leapt right over the branch collecting the cat by the scruff of the neck, took him into the house, and presented him to the lady of the house as a present!

    Ignorance reversed!!



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  • Based upon an education and evidence, I support the validity of evolution, so the process of developing the human mind did not just happen as an isolated event, nor did it just suddenly appear, instantly. I anticipate that the parts that make up the mind can be found distributed across the animal kingdom, but in what combination(s) and to what effect I don’t know, the gene motifs being conserved to various degrees. I will not be surprised if experimentation illuminates that various aspects of the mind are found within other animals, maybe even insects (which would be a very interesting experiment).

    A few decades ago I watched a science documentary about speech, or something, and a very tiny gene mutation (perhaps one or two, or a few nucleotides) was explained as being responsible for some human physiological feature important to speech, maybe it was the design of the tongue or jaw. Watching the show, my first thought was to wonder about all the other wild animals out there with a brain, and sense organs, that may have interest/reason to communicate but lack the body features to articulate the act, so developing, let alone teaching, a language would be next to impossible, for a large group to sustain the language over multiple generations.

    Casual observations, a bit off topic:
    A snake that gives birth to live young from a womb, no eggs.
    An insect that couples up with a life partner and sleeps together each night cuddled up.
    An insect that builds a nest for its eggs, to hatch, and then feeds the kids like a bird, returning to the nest.
    A stalking cat, stopping when looked at, and moving when not being looked at.
    A monkey grabbing food when the human caretaker leaves or looks away.
    Crows teaching their kids to stay away from dangerous animals.
    Odd animals with interspecie relationships, to hunt, play, live.
    Birds giving a warning call to other birds out of sight.

    Trump seems to understand ignorance, so maybe we’re not the only animals.



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  • Humans have a very long history of ASSUMING that other animals do not share various human abilities

    Hmm, but don’t the majority of people ASSUME that animals have human traits that in most cases have nothing innately human in them?



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  • I find the idea far fetched unless there is a special definition of ignorance . A tiger would not creep up on prey if it didn’t believe that its victim was unaware of its presence, for example. there are also lots of examples of animals using deceit. deceit is a deliberate creation or manipulation of ignorance.
    Ignorance of others lack of information is characteristic of very small children. they quickly get beyond that stage . Why not animals too?



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  • 8
    Pinball1970 says:

    @#2 Alan

    “Many hunting species recognise the vulnerability of the inexperienced young of their prey”

    Is that just not size? Small size = runt, ill, malnourished and/or young = slow = easy prey?

    Fighting with mum and dad or an younger older bigger smaller sibling teaches the growing predator what is easy pickings and what could give you the run around.

    Throw in a take “risk” gene or “let’s see this pans out” gene could lead to a meal, a wasted run or death.

    I think of the grudger scenario in the Selfish gene when RD is discussing ESS.

    A combination of both of these rather than recognizing vulnerability as thing on its own?

    More on topic regarding ignorance, my friend had a cat that had stitches in its head so it had to wear one of those ridiculous flower pots on its head.

    After watching trying him to unsuccessfully back out of the contraption for a few minutes followed by a pitiful attempt to get to its food bowl without inching it away each, time we observed a more intelligent behaviour the next day.

    Every time he went round a corner the other cat (his sister) would pounce on him as he could not see her. They fought sometimes but she seemed to have thrown caution to the wind now he was disabled.

    She seemed to know his vision was obscured almost immediately and took advantage. Perhaps she had observed something that told her he had tunnel vision?

    Secondly having been walloped a few times he adopted a defensive stance before he got to the door, he flicked his paw round the corner a few times just in case she was waiting in ambush.

    Considering he was unaware that he unable to back out of the fixture only the day before, this seemed to be fairly sophisticated response to the “he does not I am there” attacks.



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  • M27Holts #6
    Aug 2, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Humans have a very long history of ASSUMING that other animals do not share various human abilities

    Hmm, but don’t the majority of people ASSUME that animals have human traits that in most cases have nothing innately human in them?

    The former often have taken their assumptions from “Man the special creation of god”!

    The latter have taken their anthropomorphic understanding of zoology, from cartoon animals and fables: – a bit like YECs taking ancient human history from “The Flintstones”!

    It is often indicative of their level of understanding, that their concept of “an animal”, is of a quadruped which is big enough to fall over!



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