Social cognition

Theory of Mind is a form of social cognition, or the ability to process cognitive information presented by social partners. In group-living animals species-specific social rules guide behavior. Understanding these rules and applying them appropriately is a complicated process for individuals in the group. Recognition of familiar versus unfamiliar conspecifics, of particular age and sex classes, and of particular individuals are necessary skills for each member of the group. Even animals that spend much of their time in solitude must recognize social features of other conspecifics, including individuals who may be living in the same area. Social cognition involves not only these forms of recognition, but also understanding of species-typical social communicative signals.

In many animal species, members of the group respond quickly to alarm calls from a group member. In some cases, such response may not require much processing of information and so may be based on simple associative mechanisms. In other cases, processing of alarm calls may provide some cognitive challenge. For example, vervet monkeys (Chlorocebus aethiops) in Africa have three types of alarm calls, elicited by three different predators. Each alarm call is followed by a particular behavior by members of the group. Following a "snake" alarm call the group members stand bipedally and visually search the grass around them, presumably to locate large pythons or poisonous snakes on the ground. Looking into the air and moving to the cover of bushes follow an "eagle" alarm call. A "leopard" alarm call sends group members to trees with branches that are too fragile to support the weight of a leop ard. These calls are made selectively and appropriately by adult members of the group, and receive selective and appropriate responses by group members. Infants learn the appropriate calls, sometimes making errors as they develop, for example, producing an eagle call to the sight of a harmless bird. It appears that production of the calls involves some learning, and it may be that appropriate response to the calls also is learned through observation of group members. These alarm calls are deemed cognitive rather than reflexive because production of each type of call is voluntary and the calls are referential. That is, each type of predator call refers to only one type of predator. The calls elicit different responses specific to each type of call, and production and response to each class of call show a developmental course.

Visual social signals provide information in social interactions. The simplest signals are threat or appeasement gestures. Visual social signals that guide another animal's attention to an object or event require more complex cognitive skills. For example, monkeys and apes will join another animal to investigate jointly an object of interest. Referential pointing and referential gazing are social signals that call attention to an object or event removed from the actor. Chimpanzees and orangutans can interpret pointing in humans. They also point and vocalize to draw a human's attention to a distant object or event. However, these apes do not typically use pointing to communicate with one another and their use and interpretation of pointing varies with the amount of human contact they have had.

Although dogs do not seem to respond appropriately to pointing (the usual response by the dog is to sniff the finger of the individual pointing), they do respond to gaze direction in humans and have been shown to use gaze as a cue for the location of hidden food. Similarly, chimpanzees and monkeys are able to use gaze as a cue, and monkeys will follow the direction of gaze of a conspecific, even one presented on videotape. Chimpanzees and orangutans use humans' gaze direction to locate hidden food, and as in pointing, those animals who have had extensive contact with humans are more likely to use and are more adept with gaze cues than are those with less human contact.

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