Aesop's Fable unlocks how we think

July 25, 2012, University of Cambridge

(Medical Xpress) -- Cambridge scientists have used an age-old fable to help illustrate how we think differently to other animals.

Lucy Cheke, a PhD student at the University of Cambridge's Department of expanded Aesop's fable into three tasks of varying complexity and compared the performance of Eurasian Jays with local school children.

The task that set the children apart from the Jays involved a mechanism which was counter-intuitive as it was hidden under an opaque surface. Neither the birds nor the children were able to learn how the mechanism worked, but the children were able to learn how to get the reward, whereas the birds were not.

The results of the study illustrate that children learn about cause and effect in the physical world in a different way to birds. While the Jay's appear to take account of the mechanism involved in the task, the children are more driven by simple cause-effect relationships.

Lucy Cheke said, "This makes sense because it is children's job to learn about new cause and effect relationships without being limited by ideas of what is or is not possible. The children were able to learn what to do to get the reward even if the chain-of-events was apparently impossible. Essentially, they were able to ignore the fact that it shouldn't be happening to concentrate on the fact that it was happening. The birds however, found it much harder to learn what was happening because they were put off by the fact that it shouldn't be happening."

The tasks were a variation of Aesop's fable that consisted of using a tube of containing an out-of-reach prize. The subjects were required to use objects to displace the water so that the prize could be reached.

The first task involved two tubes, one filled with a prize amongst sawdust while the other tube contained a prize floating out of reach in water. The subject was presented with objects and was to choose which tube with which to drop the objects into: the sawdust or the water. Dropping objects into the tube containing obviously did not raise the level of the prize, whereas dropping the objects into the tube containing water created displacement and raised the prize within the reach of the subject.

The second task involved only one tube of water with a floating prize, but the subject was given a choice of what type of object to drop into the tube: an object that floats or another that sinks.

The final task presented the subject with an apparatus that consisted of one u-shaped tube with a wide arm and one narrow arm, and one single straight tube. These were imbedded in an opaque base so that the joining of the U-tube was hidden and the apparatus appeared to consist of two identical wide tubes with a narrow tube between them. Both the u-tube and the straight tube were filled with water such that the level was equal between them. The prize was inside the narrow arm of the u-tube, too narrow for the subject to insert an object to create displacement. Therefore, the subject was forced to pick one of the wider tubes on either side. If they picked the Wide arm of the u-tube, then the level of the would rise, but if they picked the single tube, it would not. Because the join of the u-tube was hidden, it appeared to the subjects as if dropping an item in one tube caused the level of water in a different tube to rise: which is impossible.

The were unable to complete this task, whereas the children performed at the same level as in the previous tasks, easily determining which tube raised the level of the water through trial and error.

Lucy added, "The Aesops fable paradigm provides an incredibly useful means by which to compare cause-effect learning with understanding of underlying mechanisms, i.e. folk physics. We are planning on extending this paradigm to really try to understand what's going on in the heads of adults, children and when they deal with problems in the physical world."

continued, "We would like to thank the staff, and parents at Godmanchester community primary school for taking part in the study".

Explore further: Crows show advanced learning abilities

More information: The study entitled: How do Children solve Aesop's Fable? Is published today (July 25th) in PLoS ONE. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040574

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Jul 25, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 25, 2012
Other than the misplaced english - what the study is saying is actually old: We are able to understand and apply fictional logic where different rules apply whereas the logic of an animal only applies to their own physical reality. That's why humans have religion, taxes, politicians, and fiat currency.
not rated yet Jul 25, 2012
...I doubt they would use such bad grammar. We think differently *than* other animals, except in the case of the underpaid copy-mangler.
Be careful, now. From the usage note at
Although it is frequently claimed that 'different' should be followed only by 'from', not by 'than', in actual usage both words occur and have for at least 300 years. 'From' is more common today in introducing a phrase, but 'than' is also used.
Regardless of the sentence construction, both 'from' and 'than' are standard after 'different' in all varieties of spoken and written American English.
In British English 'to' frequently follows 'different': 'The early illustrations are very different to the later ones.'"

So, maybe it's just a matter of British English, rather than "copy-mangling". Do a little investigation before you lash out, OK?
1 / 5 (1) Jul 25, 2012
We've known all along that we think differently than animanls. The real question is why?
1 / 5 (1) Jul 26, 2012
We alone are the noetic species. We evolve consciously in our power to ever less imperfectly bring about conditions for our future success as new inevitable challenges to our survival arise. Currently, this involves humanity's quest to inhabit outer space and to master today's equivalent of "fire"-- controlled thermonuclear fusion and next matter/anti-matter reactions. Silly behavioralist experiments are as nothing in the face of that reality. http://thingumbob...behavior
Jul 26, 2012
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
not rated yet Jul 26, 2012
I am British, the study was carried out in Britain; to me "different than" is wrong and sounds wrong. I think you overreacted somewhat.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 26, 2012
The human children fared actually worse than the birds. They tried stuff at random, and stumbled on the target. One could be as bold as to call this the idiot-method, i.e. try anything and hope for the best.

The birds, on the other hand, saw that this can't work, and they never suspected such a far-fetched betrayal. If you see it can't work, fly away, for life is too short anyway.

The kids, however, live longer, and can transfer knowledge by talking. Now, all of a sudden, the idiot-method is fruitful. If enough humans look in stupid random places, people stumble upon useful things, and this can benefit everyone.

In other words, if we weren't a knowledge-disseminating species, we would have evolved to skip a task if it seems impossible.
4.5 / 5 (2) Jul 26, 2012
I'd've been happier with the conclusions of this report if I could compare the performance of say the much more inventive if not downright ingenious New Caledonian crows with the kids or even the likes of the language comprehending touchscreen using Bonobo Kanzi.

I'm also amused a commenter on a piece about the limitations of birds unable to think outside the box is riled because another commenter uses grammar outside the box of rules established by some other busybody who published books telling everyone else they should talk and write the way he did.
3 / 5 (2) Aug 07, 2012
The human children fared actually worse
I wonder if this is all that the down voter read of the post.

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