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Among the typical reasons given for studying the cognitive behavior of animals are, it is easier to control their past histories, one is less likely to introspect about their mental activity, and although we do have to treat them humanely, we don’t have to obtain their informed consent. But there are two others that have motivated much of my own research. First, evolution has selected animals, including humans, for their ability to survive, find food and shelter, find a mate, and (depending on the species) care for their young. In an ever-changing unpredictable environment, often animals must be flexible enough to adapt to those changes faster than natural selection would permit. The possession of certain cognitive skills might provide the behavioral flexibility needed to make such adaptations.
Second, if one can show that what appears to be a complex human behavior can also be found in a supposedly cognitively simpler animal, it may be that there is a simpler explanation of the behavior not only for the simpler animal but also for humans. Thus, we may learn something about human behavior by studying the cognitive behavior of other animals.
My interest in experimental psychology began rather late in my undergraduate career. I was an electrical engineering major at Union College (Schenectady, NY). I had entered the engineering program because I enjoyed problem solving and the idea of creating electronic devices appealed to me. But the engineering curriculum was more routine and formulaic than I had anticipated (at least at the undergraduate level) and when I approached the college guidance counselor with my dissatisfaction, he suggested that I take a psychology class.
My first exposure to psychology was an adjustment-oriented introductory course that seemed to me to be closer to philosophy than to psychology. It was a very ‘feeling’ oriented course and was far removed from the science courses that I had been taking. That could have turned me off to the field, but instead it encouraged me to look into the scientific side of psychology. When I did explore a bit further, I discovered that the field of experimental psychology was replete with former math, physics, and engineering majors who were applying scientific methodology to the study of behavior.
My favorite psychology professor at Union was Clare Graves and he advised me that the University of California at Berkeley would be an ideal place to go for my graduate work. Although he turned out to correct, it was not for the reasons that he gave me. According to Graves, Edward Tolman was at Berkeley and I should see if I could work with him. As it turned out, Tolman had not only retired by the time I applied to Berkeley, but even more unfortunately he had died several years before. But I decided to go to Berkeley anyway and I entered the graduate program in experimental psychology in the fall of 1963.
At Berkeley I was able to work with Al Riley. Al was originally trained in human learning but he was just becoming interested in basic questions about the mechanisms responsible for stimulus generalization and post-discrimination generalization gradients, and animals with their limited past experience with laboratory tasks seemed to be better suited for questions about the role of attention, learning, and cognition in how organisms perceive dimensions.
The initial question was, to what extent would discrimination training between two values on a stimulus dimension result in better attention being paid to variation along that dimension and thus, result in better future learning involving that dimension. For example, if a rat learned a brightness discrimination would it make the rat more sensitive to other stimulus differences along the brightness dimension. As it turned out, this line of research became part of a renaissance of research that had been pioneered by Tolman – an area of study that has come to be known as comparative cognition.
My dissertation at Berkeley focused on the role of ‘instructions’ in the memory of rats. In the 1960s, humans in verbal learning experiments were generally given instructions at the time of recall as to what they were supposed to remember, but of course instructions could not be included in animal experiments. Although animals cannot be given instructions directly, they can be provided with contextual cues that are analogous to instructions. A rat could learn one task in context A and another in context B. Then at a later time, its memory could be tested in either context A or context B (the instruction). As it turned out, providing such an instruction at the time of recall greatly enhanced the rat’s performance (Zentall, 1970).
When I took my first faculty position, at the University of Pittsburgh, I began studying two new areas: social learning in rats (Zentall & Levine, 1972) and same/different concept learning in pigeons (Zentall & Hogan, 1976). The term social learning has been applied to phenomena that likely involve a number of different motivational, learning, and cognitive mechanisms.
One phenomenon in particular interested me. Humans are able to imitate not only actions that have an effect on the environment (e.g., striking a nail with a hammer) but also those that do not (e.g., imitating a model who raises her hand) and they can even imitate actions that when performed cannot be seen by the performer (e.g., imitating a model who puts his hand on his head). When such opaque imitation occurs in humans it is attributed to the ability of humans to take the perspective of the model (specifically, the imitator could ask himself, ‘what would I have to do, such that others would see me doing what I see the model do?’ – that is, one would be expected to have an internal representation of oneself).
Our first question was, are animals capable of opaque imitation? And if they are, by what mechanism could an animal accomplish this? Many years later we have good evidence that both pigeons (Zentall, Sutton, & Sherburne, 1996) and Japanese quail (Akins & Zentall, 1996) are capable of opaque imitation. We also know that observing the model receive reward for performance is important (Japanese quail will not imitate if the model is not rewarded for its behavior, Akins & Zentall, 1998), that following observation the birds can defer performance of the observed behavior for at least 30 min (deferred imitation, Dorrance & Zentall, 2001), and that they can imitate a sequence of two behaviors (Nguyen, Klein, & Zentall, in press). Yet, we still don’t know how they do it.
For the past 30 years, I have been at the University of Kentucky where I have been involved in a number of lines of research on comparative cognition, including equivalence learning (Urcuioli, Zentall, Jackson‑Smith, & Steirn, 1989), spatial learning and memory (Zentall, Steirn, Jackson-Smith, 1990), directed forgetting (Roper & Zentall, 1993), transitive inference (Steirn, Weaver, & Zentall, 1995), cognitive dissonance (Clement, Feltus, Kaiser, & Zentall, 2000), and timing (Kaiser, Zentall, & Neiman, 2002). Over those years, the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Science Foundation has been generous enough to fund this research and for that I am extremely grateful.
During the time that I have been at the University of Kentucky I have also edited or co-edited 4 books: Social Learning: Psychological and Biological Perspectives (with B. J. Galef, Jr., 1988), Animal Cognition: Essays in Honor of Donald A. Riley (1993), Stimulus Class Formation in Humans and Animals (with P. Smeets, 1997), and Comparative Cognition: Experimental Explorations of Animal Intelligence (with E. A. Wasserman, in press) and more than 190 journal articles and book chapters.
I have also served as Associate Editor of the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review from 1998-2002 and Learning & Behavior 2002-2006, and served as Co-Editor of a special issue of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior on Categorization and Concept Learning. In addition I have served in the governance of several psychological organizations including the Governing Board of the Psychonomic Society (2002-2007), President of the Midwestern Psychological Association (2002-2003), President of the Comparative Cognition Society (2004-2006) and I am also President-Elect of Division 6 (Behavioral Neuroscience and Comparative Psychology) of APA.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of research in comparative cognition is generating experiments to assess the cognitive abilities of other species and finding either that they are more like us (more cognitive) than we think or sometimes that we are more like them (less cognitive) than we think. It turns out that we can learn a lot from animals and that has been a very challenging and rewarding experience.
The physicist Richard Feynman said, “Science is like sex. Sometimes something useful comes out of it, but that is not why we do it.” And that is certainly true of research on comparative cognition. Even closer to home, Edward Tolman once said, “In the end the only sure criterion is to have fun,” and although it is clearly not yet the end, I am certainly having fun.