Study shows toddlers can produce a novel action after observing a correlation, while New Caledonian crows cannot

June 11, 2014 by Bob Yirka report
Credit: Elsa Loissel

(Phys.org) —A diverse team of psychology researchers with affiliations in several countries has found that while two year old children are able to produce an effective and novel action after witnessing a correlative event, New Caledonian crows are not. The team has published a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, describing experiments they conducted with volunteer toddlers and New Caledonian crows.

New Caledonian Crows are clever birds, of that there is no doubt. Humans have witnessed instances of their thinking abilities for years. But, are they able to understand correlative events and take action based on their observations? That's what the team with this new effort sought to find out. While they were at it, they decided to include very young humans to provide a comparison.

In a video that accompanied the paper, the researchers show a New Caledonian crow observing an initial experiment. Tiles are set up to fall domino-style against a box with a hole in it—as the last tile reaches the box, a stone is forced to fall through the hole and into the box causing food inside to be moved to a point where the crow could reach it. The question was, would the bird figure out that instead of pushing the first domino, it could instead simply drop a rock through the hole. As it turned out, the answer was no.

The second experiment was similar to the first, but rather than using tiles, the box had six holes in it which would allow a wooden block to fit through. The trick was that pushing a block through only one of the holes led to a treat being dispensed (due to the weight of the block). The question then was, if a was allowed to watch as several examples of rock dropping were made, would it be able to figure out the trick for itself. As with the first exercise, the answer turned out to be a clear no. Conversely, when two-year old toddlers were faced with the same set of conditions, 16 of 22 managed to figure out how to get their treat in short order.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

Such exercises demonstrate the huge gulf that exists between certain types of thinking in humans and other animals, and suggests that those that are involved in the observation of correlative events and the observer coming up with novel actions as a result, is likely one that only humans can do.

Explore further: New Caledonian crows' use of tools innovative, clever

More information: Of babies and birds: complex tool behaviours are not sufficient for the evolution of the ability to create a novel causal intervention, Published 11 June 2014 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2014.0837

Abstract
Humans are capable of simply observing a correlation between cause and effect, and then producing a novel behavioural pattern in order to recreate the same outcome. However, it is unclear how the ability to create such causal interventions evolved. Here, we show that while 24-month-old children can produce an effective, novel action after observing a correlation, tool-making New Caledonian crows cannot. These results suggest that complex tool behaviours are not sufficient for the evolution of this ability, and that causal interventions can be cognitively and evolutionarily disassociated from other types of causal understanding.

Related Stories

Study shows crows able to infer actions of hidden agent

September 18, 2012

(Phys.org)—The more scientists study animals and their intellectual abilities, the more it appears that many of them have heretofore unknown abilities that can match some of our own. One such animal is the New Caledonian ...

Why clever crow is no bird brain

October 9, 2012

Biologists on Tuesday said they had figured out how the New Caledonian crow, a bird famed for using tools, does its party trick.

Canny crows know their tools

October 8, 2013

(Phys.org) —Scientists at the University of St Andrews have discovered that New Caledonian crows, famous for their use of tools to extract hidden food, do not rely on guesswork when deploying one of their most complicated ...

Crows complete basic 'Aesop's fable' task (w/ video)

March 26, 2014

New Caledonian crows may understand how to displace water to receive a reward, with the causal understanding level of a 5-7 year-old child, according to results published March 26, 2014, in the open access journal PLOS ONE ...

Recommended for you

How bees naturally vaccinate their babies

July 31, 2015

When it comes to vaccinating their babies, bees don't have a choice—they naturally immunize their offspring against specific diseases found in their environments. And now for the first time, scientists have discovered how ...

New insights into the production of antibiotics by bacteria

July 31, 2015

Bacteria use antibiotics as a weapon and even produce more antibiotics if there are competing strains nearby. This is a fundamental insight that can help find new antibiotics. Leiden scientists Daniel Rozen and Gilles van ...

Out of the lamplight

July 31, 2015

The human body is governed by complex biochemical circuits. Chemical inputs spur chain reactions that generate new outputs. Understanding how these circuits work—how their components interact to enable life—is critical ...

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

_ilbud
3 / 5 (2) Jun 11, 2014
The six kids who couldn't figure it out went on to vote Republican/Teabagger
andyarok
5 / 5 (1) Jun 12, 2014
One thing to be considered is how many of those kids have watched or learned about such complex structures* beforehand like Building blocks or bricks. Wouldnt that alter the kids thought process or response?

* complex for toddlers

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.