On Psychological Explanations and Self-Concepts (In Some Animals)

Authored by: Eric Saidel

The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of Animal Minds

Print publication date:  July  2017
Online publication date:  July  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138822887
eBook ISBN: 9781315742250
Adobe ISBN:


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According to a recent study, prairie voles console one another when stressed. J. P. Burkett and his colleagues separated a pair of voles and subjected one of them (the “demonstrator”) to light foot shocks. 1 The demonstrator was then reunited with the other vole (the “observer”), who had not witnessed the shocks. Burkett and colleagues found that the observer engaged in significantly longer grooming behavior directed toward the demonstrator than in the control situations in which the demonstrator was not shocked. The grooming, which Burkett and colleagues also call “consolation behavior,” was limited to familiar voles; observers would not groom or console strangers. The New York Times reported on this experiment under the headline, “A Furry Shoulder to Cry On.” 2 The Times report begins with the claim that “prairie voles console one another when distressed.” There is a noticeable gap between the claims made by the scientists – that the observer grooms the stressed demonstrator – and those made by The New York Times – that the observer provides a shoulder for the distressed demonstrator to cry on. The claims made by The Times are evocative, suggesting a sympathetic response characterized by empathy and fellow feeling. The reader is practically invited to imagine the observer reaching out to the demonstrator, saying “I feel your pain.” Such a scenario is clearly not experimentally supported. Any attribution of human-like experience to the prairie vole would be premature. Or would it? What warrants an attribution of human-like experience to a nonhuman animal? What evidence might we gather to support the claim that a nonhuman animal has thoughts and experiences similar to those that humans have?

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