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Perspective taking

Perspective taking is said to be one of essential manifestations of a theory of mind because it is claimed to require knowledge that one individual has a different perspective to another and thus requires mental concepts of the self and others.

A major step towards having an idea of others' minds consists in being able to put oneself in their position to see how they see the world. This can be described as detaching oneself from one's own perspective. Small children are incapable of this, as many experiments have shown. A classical example is Piaget's "three mountains test" (Piaget and Inhelder, 1956). In this experiment one puts three "mountains", one of them much bigger than the other two, in a triangle on a table. The child who is tested sits in front of the small mountains and can see the big one behind them. A doll is placed on the other side of the table with its face towards the big mountain. The child is asked to draw what the doll can see from its side of the table. A child at the "pre-operational level" (Piaget's term) draws the scene from his own perspective, regardless of where the doll is sitting. However, a child at the "concrete operational level" (roughly from the age of seven), can imagine how the doll sees the mountains and draws the scene from the right perspective. When the child has reached this stage, it can imagine the world from different angles, regardless of the perceptions it has at a particular moment. Later experiments have shown that small children are better at imagining what others see in a certain situation if they themselves have previously been in that situation.

Long before animal’s social behaviour have been considered in terms of theory of mind, ethologists argued that social cues, such as the orientation of the head and eyes of conspecifics, play an important role in the daily interactions of community members. Gaze following, looking where somebody else is looking is one mechanism for extracting such information from the behaviour of others in primates including humans (Chance, 1967; Lawick- Goodall, 1968; Scaife and Bruner, 1975).

Povinelli and his colleagues capitalized on captive chimpanzees’ tendency to beg from their keepers to ask: Do chimpanzees understand the seemingly elementary fact that people see? Seven young chimpanzees took part in a complex series of longitudinal studies. In one series of experiments Povinelli and Eddy (1996) tested whether chimpanzees are able to understand where others are looking by putting a human opposite a chimpanzee with a transparent screen between them. The apes had no trouble in looking at the spot to which the experimenter was directing his gaze, even if it was behind the chimpanzee. In the buckets condition, the experimenters stood or sat in the same place, but one held a large bucket on her shoulder and could see the animal, while the other experimenter covered her head with a bucket and could not see the animal. In the similar screen condition, one experimenter held a cardboard screen on her shoulder while the other held it so that it completely obscured her face from the chimpanzee. In one of recent variants of the experiment, a screen with an opaque lower half was set up between the human and the chimpanzee. When the experimenter looked at a point on the opaque part of the screen, the ape would lean forward to try to see what was on the other side. This shows that it is not just the direction of the gaze that the apes follow, but also that they understand that the gaze is directed towards a certain point in the surroundings (Barth et al., 2005).

Recently data on non-primate species have been obtained in this field. In particular, it has been revealed that dogs can use a variety of experimenter-given cues such as pointing, head direction, and eye direction to locate food hidden in one of several containers. Experimental studies of Miklósi et al. (2000) have demonstrated that dogs would look at the human if they were faced with an insoluble problem situation, for example, they could not attain access to some food, which is hidden out of their reach. In such situations dogs preferentially look at their owner, and also alternate their gaze between where the food is hidden and the owner. Dogs seem to be not less sensitive to visual cues of attention in humans than chimpanzees. Soproni et al. (2001) provided evidence that dogs discriminate between persons looking into a container (containing reward) or looking above the container. While the former behaviour of the human could be interpreted as displaying attention, the later cue could signal inattentive behaviour on the part of the human. Moreover, dogs can discriminate between the attentional focus of the human even if the human does not pay attention to them. In test series Soproni et al. (2002) studied the ability of dogs to recognise human attention in different experimental situations (ball-fetching game, fetching objects on command, begging from humans). The attentional state of the humans was varied along two variables: (1) facing versus not facing the dog; (2) visible versus non-visible eyes. Researchers suggest that dogs have an understanding of the role of the human’s face orientation in social interactions but that they pay less attention to whether such facing behaviour is accompanied by the visibility of eyes. Dogs show even somewhat better overall performance in the test situations than previously reported for apes, but this difference could be due to differences in levels of socialisation with humans and also to experimental conditions.

To rule out the possibility that dogs performed better than apes because they had much more experience with humans, Hare et al. (2002) tested two groups of domestic dog puppies with different experience with humans. One group lived with human families and the other group was litter-reared. All puppies could use human pointing and head direction cues and there were no differences in response to experimenter-given cues between the groups. Therefore, it seems that extensive interaction with humans is not necessary for dogs to be able to use such cues. Some authors hypothesize that the process of domestication is important for effective communication between humans and dogs (Frank 1980; Miklosi et al. 2000). However, the results obtained by similar experimental procedures in dolphins (Herman et al.,1999) and fur seals (Scheumann and Call, 2004) reinforce the idea that effective interspecies communication can occur without a history of domestication and without formal training if animals have experienced extensive daily interactions with humans.

Nissani (2004) has adopted Povinelli and Eddy’s (1996) experimental paradigm “seeing is knowing” in the elephant study; in particular, he used such variants as “the buckets condition” and “screen variations” (Fig. X- 10). Two zoo elephants obtained even higher scores than chimpanzees in situations in which they had to choose whether to beg food from a person who could see them or a person who could not. The author himself, however, gives a very careful estimate of these results. It may be worth to note here that if elephants possess theory of mind, then these data complete a character of an elephant as a rather strange intellectual animal. Drawing to the close of the book, we can attribute the same to members of many species. As far as elephants are concerned, results of simple discrimination tests cannot be readily reconciled with the widespread view that elephants possess exceptional intelligence. They mastered these tasks not faster than rats and bees (Nissani et al., 2005). But then, elephants display excellent memory and can remember trained discriminations for several years. One female Asian elephant retained trained discriminations in her memory and readily solved the problem after eight years (Markowitz et al., 1975). This is in conformity with elephants’ ability to navigate extensive social networks basing on individual recognition of a quantity of members of their community and applying flexible communicative means (McComb et al., 2000; Pool et al., 2005). Elephants surprisingly cannot enjoy excellent memory beyond the age of 20 to 30 years. This is the more puzzling that elephants in their forties are at their prime and can do many clever things in the wild. To examine this effect, further experiments are needed (Nissani et al., 2005). Returning to the problem of experimental investigation of theory of mind in animals we should admit on the base of the sets of data described above that possessing theory of mind an organism can pretend for membership in one but not in all clubs of intellectual’s.

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