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Folk-psychology in non-human animals

Page history last edited by philosophyofsocialcognition 16 years, 2 months ago


Folk-psychology in non-human animals (1)



Arguments in favour of adopting a view of folk psychology that encompasses multiple species are generally weighed against the standard view of folk psychology, roughly stated; the attribution of mental states onto another agent through use of either mental simulation, a folk psychological theory, or a combination of the two, in an attempt to generate predictions of behavioral intent (For greater detail see Folk-psychology).



As such, for any animal to be seen as engaging in a folk psychological practice it must exemplify behaviour that is predictable through the attribution of beliefs and desires (see Intentional Stance).On these grounds any animal to be said to posses a folk psychology must be able to at least conceive of other agents as things that posses desires and beliefs, and to be able to use mental state attributions to predict behaviour.



However, if animals do engage in in folk psychological practices there are bound to be differences between their understanding and that of are own, as such the question becomes whether or not non-human animals engage in at least some of the folk psychological behaviours we do. Supporters of such a belief can site multiple instances of animals engaging in what is though of as such behaviors. For instance, the social hierarchy of chimpanzees, the rule of an Alpha male, or the instances of cooperative hunting strategies are all thought to be be seen as evidence of a sort of animal folk psychology at work, given that they all require varying degrees of coordination which would be unachievable without at least some understanding as others as intentional agents.


However at issue here with supporters of an animalistic folk psychology is the problem of other minds, that even with such evidence from animal activity it cannot be known and thus cannot be proven whether or not animals can attribute beliefs and desires.



As such the standard view of folk psychology must be augmented in order to encompass these 'other minds'. Those in favour of this cite instances of children, who can be said to be engaging in folk psychological practices even though they are too young to yet have the concept of belief, as evidence that folk psychology is not completely reliant upon the attribution of beliefs. Just as a 3 year old can be said to be engaging in folk psychological practices, for instance the ability to react differently to an angry care giver or  a happy care giver or the ability to recognize desires, without the concept of belief, so to can non-human animals.



What is required, according to supporters, is not a validated belief-desire prediction system, but rather an acceptance that animals have intentional attitudes, for instance likes and dislikes, and mentalistic concepts, for example a concept of being within sight of another, which supporters hold to be self evident in many species other then ourselves.






  • Andrews, Kirstin. Critter Psychology: On the Possibility of Nonhuman Animal Folk Psychology. In Folk Psychology Reassessed, Daniel Hutto and Matthew Ratcliffe, eds. Kluwer /Springer Press, 2007.


- Justin Williams, University of Toronto

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