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Trial-and-Error Learning in Animals

Think about the word “intelligence”. What is meant by saying that an animal is intelligent? How can you tell whether animals are really intelligent? After all, animals cannot speak and they do not use words. They cannot express ideas nor can they learn history or spelling.

Still, animals are a capable of doing many things. Perhaps your goldfish swims to the surface looking for food when you move near its tank. Or your cat may ring the doorbell when it wants to enter the house. Many other animals can even do tricks and tasks. Circuses are filled with dancing bears, playful sea lions, hard-working elephants and prancing horses. Such behavior is often wrongly perceived as signs of intelligence. As you’ll see, performing tricks is not truly a sign of intelligence. Intelligence is the ability to reason. It is the sudden flash of an idea, or the ability to solve a new problem directly and also by using previous experiences. Performing tricks and tasks do not require the ability to think, to reason on, or to have ideas.

Tricks can be mastered through special kinds of learning. One way of learning is through trial and error. Another is through conditioning responses. It is important to understand how such learning behavior works. Then we will be able to understand the differences between tricks and truly intelligent behavior.

One of the hardest problems for psychologists is to figure out ways to test intelligence. Conditioned responses are not signs of intelligence. Nevertheless, they are part of an animal’s behavior, so they may help psychologists compare differences among the learning styles of different animals. Animals are also conditioned in other ways. They can learn to avoid a place or an object by being given a mild, harmless electric shock. Some can even be forced to change their normal behavior. Almost all animals from the flatworm up can be conditioned. Another kind of learning takes place through trial and error. The most famous kind of trial and error method is the maze.

Mazes are all based on the same idea; that is, an animal that is placed in an entrance must find the exit. As it proceeds, it finds a series of branches. The animal must make a choice at each branch or fork. If it chooses the wrong one, it comes to a dead end. Then it must go back to take the other path. After a number of times the animal can run through the maze without making mistakes. The reward at the end is a piece of food for the hungry animal. Mazes can be very simple or very difficult, depending on the objectives of the psychologists. Experiments have shown that ants can master very complicated mazes, as well as frogs, turtles, rats, cockroaches and crabs.

Another way to study trial and error at learning is to place an animal in a box. Food is placed outside and the animal can reach the food only by unlocking a door. Then the animal must open the same door to get back into the box. In both cases the problem is the same: figuring out a lock to open a door. It has been found that raccoons can learn to open really complicated locks. Monkeys can also open locks in a special order, but are sometimes difficult to work with because of their bad tempers. At first, humans took as long as monkeys to open locks in a special order. But once they learned, they were much faster in opening them. The reason humans took so long is a fairly simple one. There is no way to figure out the order by looking at the locks because learning the order is a form of trial and error learning. Insight or reasoning does not help here any more than in mazes. Thus, in the first stages of trial and error learning, humans were not fast either.

Source by Michael Russell

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