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Animal intelligence: the theories of Thorndike and Köhler

Animal intelligence: the theories of Thorndike and Köhler

October 1, 2022

Intelligence is one of the great concepts studied by psychology and, in addition, one of the most difficult to explain. Being the intellect a defining capacity of the human being, it's hard to trace its evolutionary roots and, therefore, come to understand how their biological bases originated in our species. However, it is not true that the intellectual capacity we have has come out of nowhere, and this is also manifested in the study of other species with which we have common ancestors: the so-called research on animal intelligence.

The ability to mentally create simple scenes in which problems can be solved virtually, also called insight, is also typical of some animals of recent evolution. The foundations of intelligent behavior can be found, therefore, in other species contemporary to ours. Regarding the study of animal intelligence, two of the reference psychologists are Wolfgang Köhler , associated with the psychology of Gestalt , Y Edward Thorndike , behavioral psychologist.


Animal intelligence, polyhedral concept

In the first place we must clarify the object of study of both Kölher and Thorndike. The first of them wants to check to what extent there are intelligent behaviors in animals, especially anthropoids, but it is clear that their level of intelligence is behind that of the human being in terms of insight capacity. The second of them, Thorndike, highlights his object of study as a process described in terms of association laws. Therefore, while Köhler looks at the qualitative jumps that occur in the behavior of the animal when solving a problem (explained by the fact that get "out of hand" to solve a problem thanks to the power of insight), Thorndike explains problem solving in animals as a cumulative process of repetitions.


Referring to Thorndike, we highlight his special interest in the knowledge of sensory faculties, phenotypes, reactions and representational links established by experience when studying animal intelligence. According to their criteria, the word "association" can encompass a multitude of different processes that manifest themselves in multiple contexts. In this way, for Thorndike the association not only does not mark the limits of rational behavior, but is the substrate of this being the mechanism by which certain animals adapt to the environment in the best possible way . For this reason, it discards the negative connotations of a word linked to scope of the laboratory .

Kölher, however, considers that there is no associationist psychologist who in his impartial observations does not distinguish and oppose the non-intelligent behaviors on the one hand and the non-intelligent ones on the other. This is why when Thorndike, after his research with cats and chickens, mentions that "nothing in his behavior seems intelligent" Kölher believes that whoever formulates the results in these terms should be more flexible in its definition of animal intelligence .


The method

For the object of Thorndike's study, that is, to interpret the ways of acting of the animals, he built a study method based on the mediation of the time curves of progress. These curves of the progress in the formation of the "correct" associations, calculated from the records of the times of the animal in the successive trials, are absolute facts. It considers them good representations of the progress in the formation of the association because it accounts for two essential factors: the disappearance of all activity except the one that leads to the success and the realization of this last activity in a precise and voluntary way .

The place

The medium for this type of analysis was the laboratory , since it allowed to isolate variables as much as possible. As for the animals studied, he used mainly cats, but also chickens and dogs, to determine the ability and time it took for these animals to build a set of sufficiently effective actions to achieve their goals, that is, to achieve the food or what the researcher showed them through the bars of the box.

Kölher, despite using chickens and dogs promptly as subjects of experimentation to study animal intelligence, focuses on the anthropoids. For these, it constructs a complicated geometry of movements so that the animals reach their objective, which is located so that it is visually identified by the anthropoids. In addition, it considers of utmost importance the fact that the behavior of these animals must be continuously observed, for which it performs a good analysis based on observation . Kölher believes that only by causing insecurity and perplexity in chimpanzees through slight modifications of the problem can one study the constant adaptation to the circumstances that is manifested through intelligent action.

Discussion on animal intelligence

Thorndike concluded that the starting point for the association is the set of instinctive activities activated at the moment when the animal feels uncomfortable in the cage, either because of confinement or because of a desire for food. In this way one of the movements present in the The behavioral repertoire of the animal would be selected for success . Then the animal associates certain impulses that have led to success with the feeling of confinement, and these "useful" impulses they are strengthened through the association .

Kölher, in addition to his idea of ​​the importance of geometric conditions, took into account that Chance can lead animals to privileged and unequal positions since sometimes it can happen that a series of coincidences lead the animal directly towards the goal, masking the whole process as a sample of animal intelligence. This leads to the conclusion that the more complex the work to be done, the lower the probability of a solution by chance. He also believes that the experiment becomes more difficult when a part of the problem, if possible the most important, is not visible from the starting point, but only known by experience. That is why it considers important the complexity of the problem and consequently the discrimination between conducts determined by chance and intelligent behaviors.

The critics

Kölher held some objections about Thorndike's experiments. The main one was his criticism towards Thorndike's idea that in animals there is no idea from the perception from which to work mentally in the resolution of a problem (as it happens in the human being), but simply limited to establish connections between experiences. Köler, however, speaks of the insight capacity of many animals, the property of being able to suddenly arrive at the solution of a problem through the mental representation of what happens in the environment.

In turn, Thorndike denied that in the animal there is an awareness of the available ideas or impulses, and therefore also denied the possibility that the animal association is identical to the association of human psychology. From this position, denied the existence of animal intelligence .

Kölher, however, affirms that intelligent behavior does exist, at least in anthropoids, even though they are inferior to that of human beings. East lower grade in the insight of non-human animals is mainly explained by the lack of the capacity to create language and the limitation in the repertoire of possible ideas, which remain linked to the concrete and the immediate environment.


Thorndike Puzzle Box - Psychology Experiment (October 2022).


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