Does animal have intelligence?

You might have asked this kind of question. What do you think about it? Does animal have intelligence? or perhaps it’s just a form of imitating human’s behavior? hmmmm…..


Based on the research that I got, people usually use the term ‘animal cognition’ for the mental capacities of animals.

In practice, animal cognition mostly concerns mammals, especially primates and elephants, research also extends to non-mammalian vertebrates such as birds such as parrots and pigeons, lizards or fish, and even to non-vertebrates (cephalopods)

The development of animal cognition in Psychology was strongly influenced by several experiments and studies, some few examples are;

  • increased use of and interest in rather than the rats and pigeons that had become the classic species of the comparative psychology laboratory.
  • one or two high profile projects, in particular Allen and Beatrice Gardner’s Washoe project in which a chimpanzee learned at least some elements of American Sign Language.
  • advancing understanding of brain function through work in physiological psychology and cognitive neuropsychology

Now, we’ll talk about the second one, which is about a chimpanzee named Washoe. Have you heard about this experiment before? If you’re an AS level students, you must have known about this core study :p

Gardner and Gardner (1969)


Washoe 🙂

The experiment was conducted by Allen and Beatrice Gardner, whose aim was to see if it was possible to teach a chimpanzee to use a human language. They decided to use the American Sign language (ASL) as it’s almost impossible for a chimpanzee to make all speech sounds correct.

To teach Washoe signs, the Gardners and their graduate students initially modeled their approach on feed forward theory, where behavior is shaped with continuous modeling and repetition. So, for sometime, Washoe lived with the research team. Most of the time, all of them used ASL, any sounds and gestures that Washoe could imitate such as laughing, clapping, etc. Correct sounds and gestures would be given rewards or reinforcements.

The scientists would shape the gesture by encouraging and rewarding variations of that gesture until it became a true ASL sign. For example, the sign for MORE is made by bringing one’s hands together and touching the fingertips. In the context of tickling, Washoe would naturally bring her arms together to protect herself. Noticing the crude resemblance of this action to the sign for MORE, the Gardners would pull Washoe’s arms apart and stop tickling. Washoe then tended to bring her arms together again, at which point the Gardens would reward her with more tickling.

It is reported that Washoe could use reliably use around 250 signs. During the sixteenth month if the study, a new procedure was agreed. For Washoe to be considered “reliable” on a sign, it had to be seen by 3 different observers in 3 separate spontaneous instances in the correct context and used appropriately. Following those observations, it had to be seen 15 days in a row to be added to her “reliable” sign list.

30 signs met this criteria by the end of the 22nd month. A further 4 signs were judged to be learned despite not being observed on 15 consecutive days. Washoe learned the total of 21 new signs, and during the final month, Washoe used a minimum of 23 signs everyday.

Just for our consideration, let’s think about this, was Washoe really using sign language or had she simply learned a complex set of behaviors that allowed her to get reinforcements from her trainers?

For the psychologists, the debate is endless. But in my opinion, animals just have capabilities in imitating, not really using the language like we do. But nevertheless, we can’t really know about what’s happening inside their brain, lol.


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