Meta-rational animals

Monkeys and dolphins are capable of recognizing when they do not know the answer to a question. Here is a brief summary of the experiments:

In the first one, trained monkeys sat at a computer joystick and watched the density of colored dots in a square on the screen. When there were many dots, the monkey moved the joystick to the square itself, choosing “dense.” When there were few dots, the monkey put the cursor on an “S,” superimposed on the screen, indicating “sparse.”

Gradually, examiners added more dots to the “sparse” test until the monkey reached a threshold where it could not easily discern whether the panel was “dense” or not. At that point, the monkey chose to put the cursor on a star, indicating uncertainty.

Smith said the two monkeys displayed uncertainty at almost the same threshold as seven humans who also took the test. This result, Smith and his co-authors said, “presents one of the strongest existing matches between human and animal performance in the comparative literature.”

In the second test, a bottlenose dolphin was trained to press a lever when it heard a “low” tone, and another lever when it heard a “high” tone. At first, the dolphin was so enthusiastic that it kicked up swirls of water as it raced to the levers.

But when researchers raised the low tone until it approached the high tone, “he would creep in because he didn’t know what to do,” Smith said. “It was the dolphin equivalent of scratching its head.” The dolphin would then resort to a third lever, indicating uncertainty.

In other words, very intelligent animals are aware of their own cognitive limitations, here is the full story. So far it has not been possible to induce comparable behavior in rats, nor in many political commentators.

The bottom line: Of all kinds of rationality, meta-rationality is perhaps the hardest to come by. It is most rare when more than one person, or questions of status, are involved. For whatever reasons, a kind of false certainty must have yielded evolutionary advantages in earlier times, and perhaps still does today. Those animals would really impress me if they dropped their admissions of uncertainty when a member of the opposite sex was watching.


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