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Biology LibreTexts

45.7C: Cognitive Learning and Sociobiology

  • Page ID
    14214
  • Learning Objectives

    • Describe research models that indicate the presence of cognitive learning in animals

    Cognitive Learning

    Classical and operant conditioning are inefficient ways for humans and other intelligent animals to learn. Some primates, including humans, are able to learn by imitating the behavior of others and by taking instructions. The development of complex language by humans has made cognitive learning, or the manipulation of information using the mind, the most prominent method of human learning. In fact, that is how you are learning right now by reading this information. As students read, they can make mental images of objects or organisms, imagining changes to them or behaviors by them as they anticipate the consequences. In addition to visual processing, cognitive learning is also enhanced by remembering past experiences, touching physical objects, hearing sounds, tasting food, and a variety of other sensory-based inputs. Cognitive learning is so powerful that it can be used to understand conditioning (discussed in the previous concept) in detail. In the reverse scenario, conditioning cannot help someone learn about cognition.

    Classic work on cognitive learning was done by Wolfgang Köhler with chimpanzees. He demonstrated that these animals were capable of abstract thought by showing that they could learn how to solve a puzzle. When a banana was hung in their cage too high for them to reach along with several boxes placed randomly on the floor, some of the chimps were able to stack the boxes one on top of the other, climb on top of them, and get the banana. This implies that they could visualize the result of stacking the boxes even before they had performed the action. This type of learning is much more powerful and versatile than conditioning.

    Cognitive learning is not limited to primates, although they are the most efficient in using it. Maze-running experiments done with rats in the 1920s were the first to show cognitive skills in a simple mammal. The motivation for the animals to work their way through the maze was the presence of a piece of food at its end. In these studies, the animals in Group I were run in one trial per day and had food available to them each day on completion of the run. Group II rats were not fed in the maze for the first six days and then subsequent runs were done with food for several days after. Group III rats had food available on the third day and every day thereafter. The results were that the control rats, Group I, learned quickly, figuring out how to run the maze in seven days. Group III did not learn much during the three days without food, but rapidly caught up to the control group when given the food reward. Group II learned very slowly for the six days with no reward to motivate them. They did not begin to catch up to the control group until the day food was given; it then took two days longer to learn the maze.

    image

    Cognitive learning: Group I (the green solid line) found food at the end of each trial; group II (the blue dashed line) did not find food for the first 6 days; and group III (the red dotted line) did not find food during runs on the first three days. Notice that rats given food earlier learned faster and eventually caught up to the control group. The orange dots on the group II and III lines show the days when food rewards were added to the mazes.

    It may not be immediately obvious that this type of learning is different from conditioning. Although one might be tempted to believe that the rats simply learned how to find their way through a conditioned series of right and left turns, E.C. Tolman proved a decade later that the rats were making a representation of the maze in their minds, which he called a “cognitive map.” This was an early demonstration of the power of cognitive learning and how these abilities were not limited just to humans.

    Sociobiology

    Sociobiology is an interdisciplinary science originally popularized by social insect researcher E.O. Wilson in the 1970s. Wilson defined the science as “the extension of population biology and evolutionary theory to social organization.” The main thrust of sociobiology is that animal and human behavior, including aggressiveness and other social interactions, can be explained almost solely in terms of genetics and natural selection. This science is controversial; some have criticized the approach for ignoring the environmental effects on behavior. This is another example of the “nature versus nurture” debate of the role of genetics versus the role of environment in determining an organism’s characteristics.

    Sociobiology also links genes with behaviors and has been associated with “biological determinism,” the belief that all behaviors are hardwired into our genes. No one disputes that certain behaviors can be inherited and that natural selection plays a role retaining them. It is the application of such principles to human behavior that sparks this controversy, which remains active today.

    Key Points

    • Cognitive learning involves the manipulation of information using the mind; it is a great deal more powerful than either operant or classical conditioning.
    • The development of complex language by humans has made cognitive learning the most prominent method of human learning.
    • Cognitive learning is not limited to primates; rats have demonstrated the ability to build cognitive maps, as well, which are mental representations used to acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the environment.
    • Sociobiology argues that all animal and human behavior, including aggressiveness and other social interactions, can be explained almost solely in terms of genetics and natural selection.
    • Sociobiology is controversial: some have criticized the approach for ignoring the environmental effects on behavior and for being similar to “biological determinism,” or the belief that all behaviors are hardwired into our genes.

    Key Terms

    • cognitive map: a mental epresentation which serves an organism to acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday environment
    • cognitive learning: the process by which one acquires knowledge or skill in cognitive processes, which include reasoning, abstract thinking, and problem solving
    • sociobiology: the science that applies the principles of evolutionary biology to the study of social behaviour in both humans and animals

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