Psychological research, obedience and ethics
Psychological research, obedience and ethics

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Psychological research, obedience and ethics

Activity 3: Researching animals

You have just learned about the ethics of animal research; now you have the opportunity of hearing from two psychologists working with animals in Researching Animals, two films created specifically for the course Discovering psychology (DSE141) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Reading about research that psychologists have conducted with animals is often fascinating, but seeing how the research is conducted is even better. Film A (8 minutes) introduces the work of Alex Thornton with meerkats; in Film B (17 minutes) you will learn about Tetsuro Matsuzawa’s work with chimpanzees.

First, watch the two films without interruption. After doing so, read ‘Issues to consider’ below, then watch them again, keeping these issues in mind. Make sure that you take some notes.

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Skip transcript: Film A: Researching Animals (meerkats)

Transcript: Film A: Researching Animals (meerkats)

Commentary
The Kalahari Meerkat Project is one of the longest running field studies on social mammals in the world and has produced a rich insight into many aspects of meerkat culture. One of the researchers involved in this Cambridge University run study is Alex Thornton.
Alex Thornton
Meerkats are a fantastically useful study species. In fact, if you were going to design the perfect mammalian study species, you probably couldn’t get much better than meerkats. They live in very open areas, so they’re easy to see. They’re active during the day, unlike the majority of mammals. They’re extremely social and cooperative, so there’s a lot of interest in trying to understand their social interactions, and why it is that animals will go out of their way to help one another and also they can become very easily habituated to human observers. The aim of habituation is to get the animals to a stage where they’re not scared of people. And there are a number of large animals wandering around the Kalahari Desert, there’s lots of different species of antelope, for example, and the meerkats are not scared of the antelope because they’re not a threat. So they treat us in much the same way that they treat an antelope. We can walk past, and they ignore us completely. They don’t look up at us, they don’t alarm when we approach. And so this allows us to collect natural behaviour.
We can observe them from close range. So habituation is an extremely powerful and useful tool. And meerkats are, in a way, are a fantastic half way house, because although they’re wild, we can also do a lot of things that normally you would expect to only be able to do with captive animals.
It’s very important to make sure that your experiments are realistic, that they are not looking at something that’s completely irrelevant to a meerkat’s life and to their, to their basic ecology. And so all the experiments that I do are grounded in vast amounts of observational data where we really understand what these animals are doing on a day-to-day basis, without being manipulated by, by me or by other experimenters.
Commentary
Observing animals in the wild allows researchers to study the evolution of animal behaviours and culture.
Alex Thornton
The main reason why I’m doing it, is to look at the evolutionary origins of culture, essentially. Culture is obviously something that’s fantastically important to human societies. And I’m seeking to understand its biological roots, how it is that animals can learn from each other, and what the consequences of this are.
One of the most interesting things I’ve been looking at recently is the question of whether meerkats teach. Now teaching is a trait that often thought of as exclusively human. We know that animals in many different species can learn by observing the actions of others, but it was thought that humans were unusual in that the wise change their behaviour to educate the naïve. We go out of our way to help others to learn. So I was interested in whether that might actually happen in meerkats.
Young pups need to learn how to catch and kill things like scorpions. So I was interested in whether adults would teach them how to do this. And in fact this is what seems to be the case.
So they will bring prey that’s alive, but it’s been modified. So if it’s a scorpion, they might bring a scorpion that is alive but that has had its sting removed, so the pup gets a chance to practise without being stung. Then, as the pups get older, they’re increasingly given fully intact prey.
So this video clip shows an example of a teaching interaction. So in this clip you can see an adult meerkat who’s biting the sting off this scorpion, he then allows a pup to come in and take the scorpion and the adult stays behind to monitor what the pup is doing so as you can see the pup is having quite a lot of difficulty handling the scorpion but the scorpion now has no sting, so there’s no danger that the pup will be stung. The adult remains here watching what the pup is doing. Often if the pup loses the scorpion the adult will catch it and bring it back again or if the pup is struggling the adult will modify it further, so as you can see now the pup has finally managed to grab the scorpion and run off with it…and off he goes.
Adults are giving pups opportunities to handle live prey, so does that make the pups learn faster than they would otherwise? So in order to test this, I ran an experiment where I randomly allocated pups to three different treatments. One treatment, the pups got additional opportunities to handle live scorpions, and they were given four live scorpions for three consecutive days. Some of their siblings in the, in another treatment were allocated to dead scorpions, so they were given the same number of scorpions over the same number of days. And then there was a third treatment, where the pups got an equivalent mass of hard-boiled egg, again, over three days. On the fourth day, I tested all the pups with a live scorpion. This was a sting-less scorpion, so there was no danger that the pup would get stung. And I found that the pups from the first treatment, the pups who were given live scorpions to practise with were much better, so they were less likely to lose the scorpion, they were less likely to get pincered on the nose, they were a lot quicker at handling the scorpion. So this really illustrates that practice makes perfect for meerkat pups.
Commentary
The study then looked at whether this behaviour was, in fact, active teaching by the adults.
Alex Thornton
I set about looking at whether, rather than teaching what pups know, adult meerkats might actually base their behaviour on simple cues that the pups are giving them.
So meerkat pups wander around the group making incessant begging calls. And the pups’ begging calls change as they get older, just as a child’s voice changes as it gets older. And so I recorded the begging calls of pups of different ages and played them back to groups. And I found that if you play the calls of old pups to a group with young pups, the adults start to bring live prey, even though the pups are too young to deal with it. Conversely, if you play the calls of young pups to a group with older pups, the adults flip their behaviour and start bringing dead prey. So this shows us how a simple cue governs rather complex, or seemingly complex, behaviour.
This really shows that the adults don’t understand what the pups know; they’re not intentionally setting about to correct the pups’ ignorance, but rather they’re responding to a simple cue. And by doing this, they help to promote learning in the pups.
Commentary
Alex Thornton’s studies have demonstrated that while meerkats do, in fact, teach their young how to hunt prey, they are not motivated to do so in the same ways that humans teach.
Alex Thornton
I think there is a danger of people reading human characteristics into the behaviour of animals, and this is something that we come across very often, especially in the popular press. And in a sense, a lot of the purpose of the sort of research that I do is to try and address these beliefs. Now what my research has shown is that meerkats can teach, but they do it using far simpler means.
So this really shows us how a seemingly complicated form of behaviour is governed by rather simple means. And it allows us to address these misapprehensions about the way that animals operate. The flipside of it is that it also allows us to look at the similarities. So it allows us to understand that humans are connected to the rest of the biological world, and to see what the relationship is between the minds and the behaviour of humans and other species. So by studying meerkats and chimpanzees and birds, we can begin to understand the evolutionary history of our own behaviour.
End transcript: Film A: Researching Animals (meerkats)
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Skip transcript: Film B: Researching Animals (chimpanzees)

Transcript: Film B: Researching Animals (chimpanzees)

Commentary
The study of the human brain has been a popular area of research as we have sought to understand its inner workings. One approach has been to look at how our brains have evolved and what aspects are held in common with other animals.
Here in Japan one of the longest running animal studies is happening at Kyoto University.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa heads up the Primate Research Institute, one of the most respected laboratory studies into chimpanzees in the world.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa
Oh, look at that. Amazing.
Commentary
Known as the Ai Project, it was named after the first chimpanzee to arrive there forty-three years ago.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa
I clearly remember when I was twenty-six, as Assistant Professor of this Institute, I met the chimpanzee named Ai. I was fascinated to see chimpanzees in everyday life.
Up to that point I had no idea about chimpanzees, and I thought it must be a big black monkeys. But it’s not a big black monkey, it’s really something so like us. From the beginning I recognised the great similarity between the chimpanzee and me.
That is called pant-hoot - greeting voice. He say hello I’m here. You called me and I’m here and she called I’m here too.
To know the chimpanzees you can know about humans because we share the common ancestor only six million years ago. So, if you want to know, you yourself, in comparison to the other creatures, the most important one is the evolutionary neighbour. That means chimpanzees.
Commentary
Matsuzawa believes that the only way to understand more about the chimpanzee mind and life as a whole is to study them both in captivity and in the wild. In Guinea, West Africa, he’s running a series of field studies on wild chimpanzees, while here in Kyoto he’s able to run controlled experiments in a laboratory setting.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa
Here we have a group of fourteen chimpanzees of three generations. Chimpanzees are group living, isolated single chimpanzee is no more chimpanzee, so all chimpanzees should be put together. They are living in a group in their natural habitat, so do they in captivity. And I provided a small forest for them. So this is a forest. Fifteen metres high climbing frames – hi Chloe – and a lot of vegetation. Trees and shrubs. I’m not teaching human language to the chimpanzees. I really want to communicate with them in their way of communication. In this community not only chimps but also humans co-exist together and definitely they know that I’m the top-ranking male.
Commentary
Matsuzawa’s knowledge of chimpanzee culture and traditions underpin his field studies in Guinea. Here, he is leading the way on researching how chimpanzees learn to use tools, such as leaves to drink water, twigs to tease out termites and rocks to crack nuts.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa
I really want to know the chimpanzee way of passing the knowledge, techniques, values, to the next generation.
So here is a chimpanzee, three and a half years old. Not yet acquired the skill. Then the girl went to an adult chimpanzee who is cracking open nuts and carefully watching the skill in this close distance. This is their way of observation. Now the girl went back to her original place to try to crack open nuts. Still very difficult. So it’s very clear she’s not motivated to eat the kernel. She’s really motivated to make the copy of the adult behaviour. So they do not teach - they show the good model.
Commentary
Until recent years, tool use had been considered uniquely human. The discovery of tool use in chimpanzees in the wild is not only an insight into chimpanzee culture and learning processes, but tells about how tool use may have developed in early humans.
In his laboratory work, Matsuzawa was again interested in finding out how chimpanzees learn. He wanted to explore photographic memory and so invented a series of experiments using numerical sequences. Part of the task involved his chimpanzees memorising at a glance the numerals presented on a computer screen. Matsuzawa uses a technique of ‘participation observation’ in his studies. Every day there is a ritual of inviting the chimpanzees to take part in tasks. This means it’s a voluntary participation.
Today he’s working with Ai and her ten-year old son Ayumu.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa
So every day in the first session we confirm their knowledge about the numerical sequence, 1 through 9. Both Ai, chimpanzee and Ayuma, chimpanzee. The mother and the child. So now already more than 9, 10, 11, up to 12, is tested in this session and in the next session we will test up to 19. This sound we call ‘chime’ and when he makes a correct response – chime. The most important point is the feedback – whether it is correct or incorrect, by the sound – but the correct trial is accompanied by a small treat.
Commentary
The treat is part of the food rations the chimpanzees receive every day. Chopped apples and raisins are released automatically by the computer programme, in return for a correct response.
The chimpanzees signal when they have finished the session.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa
The knocking means the request. ‘Please in a hurry to prepare the next session. I’m ready to go.’
Commentary
They are now ready for the masking experiment.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa
So the task is ‘give me the question’ and it’s so quick. Seven numerals touch one then the other numerals are gone. Still he can remember what numerals appeared in which position, so this is a real performance. So Ayuma, chimpanzee, can remember the seven numerals at a glance. Young chimpanzee is better than other chimpanzee in general, so that is in the case too in Ai and Ayumu. Ayumu, the son, is better than the mother. The phenomenon itself is very close to our cases, human cases. The younger generation is good at learning new things than the older persons.
Commentary
At the end of each session there is a period of play and grooming. This is important for both bonding and reinforcing status.
Ai may be playing with children’s toys, but no child could match her or her son’s memory skills. Human participants also take part in the study – attempting the same task and using the same equipment. Now the session is over, Matsuzawa’s students, Lyla and Akiho, decide to have a go themselves.
Lyla
I can’t memorise the order and position of the numerals. It’s very difficult.
Akiho
If I pass 5 then it’s getting difficult I think – 3, 4. 5 – I don’t know the next one. My score was 20 per cent.
Lyla
And my score was only 10 per cent.
Akiho
But Ayuma, the young chimpanzee’s, score was over 50 per cent.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa
Let’s try to challenge Ayumu, the chimpanzee. OK, let me try again. Nope, let me concentrate. Wow, difficult. Whoops. Oops. Embarrassing. So I completely failed, but this is Ayumu’s performance – 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. So this clearly tells us that there is a cognitive task – memorising numerals at a glance – in which young chimpanzees are better than human adults.
We know one among thousands human children has this kind of capability, but all of the three young chimpanzees, showed this kind of photographic memory. So it’s a clear difference. Chimpanzees are good at memorising things at a glance.
So what’s the meaning of this finding? Human has a linguistic capability that is really uniquely human. Human speech, human language. What is the advantage of human speech, human language? That is very clear that the information is portable.
Suppose that you see a creature passing in front of you, there was a white spot on the forehead and brown hairs and black hairs on the legs, this kind of immediate memory may be important for next encounter. But, suppose that you can summarise your direct experience to say “horse, wild horse”. You can bring back your experience to your community to say ‘I saw the horse in that place. Let’s go together to hunt. It’s a big meat.’ So this kind of thing is the clear advantage of having the language, having the symbol in comparison to the direct memory. So chimpanzees lives in the world of the here and now, so that very good at capturing the world in front of them. That is proved by photographic memory of chimpanzee.
So I have my own evolutionary scenario, this kind of things. So the common ancestor six million years ago may have had this kind of photographic memory and it’s still kept in chimpanzee lineage. But human lineage, we lost. We got the symbolic representation, we got speech and language.
Commentary
Matsuzawa’s work shows that in the course of cognitive development humans have acquired linguistic skills, but he maintains this has been at the expense of losing their photographic memory.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa
It’s my great pleasure to be here to talk about my study on the chimpanzee mind.
Commentary
Matsuzawa has published his findings widely and disseminated them on the world stage at conferences, but he has found that for some people the idea that chimpanzees can outperform humans is difficult to accept.
Professor Tetsuro Matsuzawa
It’s so interesting to see the response by the ordinary people about this thing. And I’m so surprised to see that it’s very difficult for some people to accept the truth.
Some says, ‘Oh, it’s operant conditioning of food reward.’ Or, ‘intensive training is necessary.’ Or, ‘it must be a genius chimpanzee.’ So, anyway, the point is, people are not so happy to see the truth that chimpanzees can be better than us.
It might be a single case, but in which chimpanzee can outperform humans. So therefore, we cannot say that humans are always superior to the other creatures.
End transcript: Film B: Researching Animals (chimpanzees)
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Issues to consider

  • Alex Thornton has looked at how meerkats teach their young to catch scorpions. To what extent is this process similar to or different from that which human parents use?
  • Tetsuro Matsuzawa found that, when it comes to completing the photographic memory task, chimpanzees are superior to humans. What explanation does he give for this finding? Can the performance of the chimpanzees be explained by conditioning?
  • Think about the location where the two researchers conduct their studies. What are the advantages and disadvantages of researching animals in their natural habitat compared to captivity?
  • Compare the reasons why Alex Thornton and Tetsuro Matsuzawa study animals. Which of them is interested in animal behaviour not just for its own sake, but also as a way of learning about human capacities?
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