Is shared intentionality reserved only for humans?

Shared intentionality, sometimes called ‘we’ intentionality, refers to collaborative interactions in which participants share psychological states with one another (Gilbert, 1989; Searle, 1995; Tuomela, 1995). The term also implies that the collaborators’ psychological processes are jointly directed at something and take place within a joint attentional frame (Hurford 2007: 320, Tomasello et al. 2005).

Pet lovers will be, and for obvious reasons, in opposition to this theory, as it also suggests that though animals are smart enough to perform many tasks, they are unable to collaborate within a joint attentional frame.

Please see the following link: Dogs communicating that their intentions are not aggression but play – a form of metacommunication.

In the study of the mental capacities of animals, research has examined animal cognition in mammals (especially primates, cetaceans, elephants, dogs, cats, horses, raccoons and rodents), birds (including parrots, corvids and pigeons), reptiles (lizards and snakes), fish and invertebrates (including cephalopods, spiders and insects).

The behavior of non-human animals has captivated human imagination from antiquity, and over the centuries many writers have speculated about the animal mind, or its absence, as Descartes would have it. Speculation about animal intelligence gradually yielded to scientific study after Darwin placed humans and animals on a continuum, although Darwin’s largely anecdotal approach to the topic would not pass scientific muster later on”.

Many would readily challenge the concept of shared intentionality, whether or not they’re animal lovers or pay that close attention to what animals do or how they communicate, but it is important to understand how Tomasello and others came to their conclusion that to be a part of the shared intentional club you must be human.

We understood, from our last class, that Tomasello did many tests/research to come to his conclusion and did welcome feedback from credible researchers, but many in our class applied practicality and our knowledge of the world around us, to ensue a somewhat credible discussion. There’re some obvious questions to ask about Tomasello’s proposal, namely: are we the only ones capable of knowingly work together to achieve a set goal? Are we able/capable of understanding the intentions of other animals or their shared intentions without triggering or manipulating their environment?

According to one of Tomasello’s experiment “At 14 months of age for example, human children are able to successfully pass an object-choice task. In this task, children are presented with two upside-down buckets, one of which contains a toy, and the experimenter points toward the bucket where the toy is hidden. The child then turns to the right bucket and retrieves the toy. Although this task may appear simple, it is remarkable that chimpanzees fail it. In contrast to children, they fail to see the pointing gesture as a relevant cooperative signal within a shared attentional frame. Instead chimpanzees seem to think something along the lines of: “‘A bucket. So what? Now where’s the food?’ They do not understand that the pointing is intended to be ‘relevant’ to the searching as a shared activity (see Sperber & Wilson, 1986)” (Tomasello & Carpenter 2007: 122)”.

I like many of you, questioned whether or not the methods used to retrieve data in the above experiment produced accurate results. It’s well-established that living in unchanging, inescapable environments induces boredom in humans, including prisoners who report that they are highly motivated to seek stimulation. “But we cannot rely on verbal self-reports from non-humans, so motivation to obtain general stimulation must form the basis of any objective measure of boredom in animals,” said Prof. Georgia Mason, who holds the Canada Research Chair in animal welfare in Guelph’s Department of Animal and Poultry Science.

Can we then assume that the environment in which these animals are kept/ researched is not their natural environment and hence would influence the results of Tomasello’s experiment? I believe many would agree with me if I recommend that either both subjects be placed in their natural environment or both in their unnatural environment, this, I believe, would provide a definitive explanation for their results.

I’m not advocating for or against the results of Tomasello’s theory, as I’m in no position to determine whether or not the results would change if the subjects were  placed in their natural environment, but would like to know the “what if”. Is it really safe to say that animals cannot intentionally help one another, or work with each other to accomplish a set goal.

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3 Responses to Is shared intentionality reserved only for humans?

  1. I agree that it may be difficult to draw the conclusions from the study which includes chimpanzees who are not being observed in their natural environment. I also find it interesting that the conclusion is they do not exhibit intentionality when utilizing human language. I feel as though the general conclusion that they do not have the capacity of intentionality may not be entirely accurate. The conclusion seems to be that they do not display intentionality when interacting with humans, using human communication. It seems to reason that animals who live in groups would, out of necessity if nothing else, have some form of communication to work towards common goals. After all, without common goals why would group living occur? I recently read an article entitled, “Human –like social skills in dogs.” In this article Tomasello and his colleague discuss how dogs seem to be able to read human intentions, such as interpreting a human pointing or nodding to hidden food. The article further discusses how this may be due to the fact that dogs may have evolved with humans since their domestication. They also write about how some chimpanzees that are raised with humans can also do this, (Hare, Tomasello, 2005). It seems to me that this may indicate that dogs may have learned our language as have some of the chimpanzees living with humans. This leads me to wonder if the question is more one of language than intentionality.

  2. zbysiuk says:

    In social science research, the concept Randy is discussing is referred to Ecological validity. Urie Bronfenbrenner, father of the Ecological model, addressed the idea that laboratory based research creates an artificial environment . The concept of validity, whether the results are accurate for conditions beyond the lab, is the point of the discussion. The ecological model illustrates the complexity of the social conditions for, example, children and families. The idea that we can isolate a specific behavior for the purpose of study is a feature of the experimental method – valid in many instances. But, as Randy points out, perhaps too artificial even for chimpanzees. Application of an ecological perspective to the study of chimpanzees and pointing would require a greater immersion in the world of the chimpanzee in his natural environment. Observation of various systems that could have an influence on the chimpanzee behavior: intra-group behavior, availability of resources, threats, – could result in a greater understanding of natural behavior. Would a chimp really look for a toy under a bucket in the wild?

  3. cisshie says:

    Hi Randy:
    Reply 7: Is shared intentionality reserved only for humans?
    Thank you for presenting how Tomasello et al. reported their experiments with apes, and their subsequent conclusions based on these studies. I also questioned the authenticity of their findings. In fact researchers such as Boesch 2006; Irons, 2009 have rigorously challenged the experiments in terms of their vigor, reliability, analysis and conclusions. Irons goes as far as to state that their conjecture of whether apes have a “we intentionality” is based on a faulty premise.
    Boesch asserts as you do, that observing apes in artificial environments yields erroneous findings. Boesch purports that the group hunting of Tai chimpanzees meets the standards set by Tomasello et al. of share intentionality, collaboration, cooperation and shared psychological states, and therefore Boesch rebuffs Tomasello et al. claim that “humans only possess shared goals and intentions”. In fact, Boesch concludes that Tai chimpanzees in their natural hunting environment demonstrate the “we intentionality”.
    You raise a very interesting point of comparing apes in captivity to humans, and suggest this mode of comparison is dialectically opposed. I am in agreement with this assertion. Although prisons may be perceived as an environment that is constructed for human captivity, even this fails in comparison, since the guards and administration are of the same species as the prisoners. However, prisons do provide a glimpse of human behavior, and human adaptability when under captivity.
    The research to date states that people incarcerated in prisons have contracted a host of diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis, hepatitis, mental illness, etc. In addition, of those prisoners held in solitary confinement (SC), they are at higher risks of admissions to the prisons’ psychiatric unit. Sestoft, Andersen, Lillebaek, & Gabrielsen (1998) conducted a study comparing the rate, symptoms, disease and psychiatric illnesses between SC prisoners and non-SC prisoners and found that SC prisoners “are forced into an environment that increases their risk of hospitalization to the prison hospital for psychiatric reasons (pg. 105). There is an overall prevalence of mental disorders among prisoners. Eytan, Haller, Wolf, Cerutti, Sebo, Bertrand, & Niveau (2010) state that “most studies of psychiatric disorders in prisoners show a high prevalence of schizophrenic disorders and psychotic illnesses” (pg.13).
    I therefore wonder how prisoners would do in terms of demonstrating the shared intentionality and the “we internationality” as postulated by Tomasello et al. Since Tomasello et al. assert that only human possess this species-specific trait, would they contend that only human are capable of possessing mental health illnesses. It is possible that the impact of captivity or solitary confinement of apes may lead to a host of mental health disorders and psychiatric illness they could impede their “we intentionality”? I do not know if the shared intentionality or the “we intentionality” is human specific. I do know that apes have survived, just as humans.
    Eytan, A., Haller,D., Wolff, H., Cerutti, B., Sebo, P., Bertrand, D., & Niveau, G. (2011).Psychiatric
    symptoms, psychological distress and somatic comorbidity among remand prisoners in
    Switzerland. International Journal of Law and Psychiatric, 34(1), 13-19. Doi: Retrieved from Copyright
    2014 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved Database.
    Irons, W. (2009). Genes and cultures-Boyd and Richerson: The intertwined roles of genes and
    culture in human evolution. Religion & Journal of Science, 44(2), 347-354. Doi: 10.1111/
    j:1467-9744.2009.01003x. Retrieved from ArticleFirst Database.
    Sestoft, D., Andersen, H., Lillebaek, T., & Gabrielsen, G. (1998). Impact of solitary confinement
    on hospitalization among Danish prisoners in custody. International Journal of Law and
    Psychiatric, 21(1), 99-108. Doi: (97) 00025-3. Retrieved from MEDLINE@/PubMed, a U.S. National Library of Medicine

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