Cognition in Problem Solving

Solving a problem involves using prior experience, observation, and insight to find the solution. You should be able to add any two, randomly chosen, numbers together to obtain the correct sum, even if you have never encountered that particular pair of numbers before. If you walk into a dark room, you'll solve the problem by searching for a light switch, even if you haven't previousl been in the room. But, if you're walking your dog and she wraps her leash around a sign post, can she solve the problem by reversing her circle and unwinding the leash? If you place a plexiglass barrier between your dog or cat's food and your pet, can it solve the problem by walking around the edge of the barrier? Some dogs and cats can solve these problems, and some can't; these seem to be at the limits of problem solving ability of these species.

But, you shouldn't sell animals short on their problem solving abilities. We tend to judge "intelligence" in animals by the animals' ability to solve problems at which humans are proficient. Many animals have superior navigational abilities to humans', and can solve complex navigational problems that would befuddle a human through a combination of better sensory abilities and more sophisticated use of simple navigational tools like path integration.

Hauser et al. (2002) focused problem solving related to tool use in tamarins. They found that animals which had previous experience with tool use tended to focus on the functional role of a tool (a cloth used to retrieve food), while animals which had not previously learned about tools tended to associate the color of the tool with the task. Their results as showing that tamarins can solve problems involving tool use, but that experience plays a critical role in developing this ability.

Gouteux S, Thinus-Blanc C, Vauclair J 2001 Rhesus monkeys use geometric and nongeometric information during a reorientation task JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY-GENERAL 130 (3): 505-519

Hauser MD, Kralik J, Botto-Mahan C 1999 Problem solving and functional design features: experiments on cotton-top tamarins, Saguinus oedipus ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR 57: 565-582

Hauser MD, Santos LR, Spaepen GM, HE Pearson. 2002 Problem solving, inhibition and domain-specific experience: experiments on cottontop tamarins, Saguinus oedipus ANIM BEHAV 64: 387-396

Return to beginning of Chapter 15

Return to Table of Contents

page 15-*
copyright ©2003 Michael D. Breed, all rights reserved.