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How smart is a dog?

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border collieI found this article on dog intelligence extremely interesting. Psychologist Stanley Coren has defined intelligence--dog intelligence, that is--as having three parts: adaptive intelligence (the dog's ability to solve problems), instinctive intelligence (what the dog was bred to do) and obedience/working intelligence (how readily the dog learns from its owner.) Based on estimates of how quickly a specific breed of dogs learns and how often it obeys, Coren has come up with a ranking of the intelligence of various dog breeds.

Border collies top the list. Poodles are second.

Two of these domains are comparable to how human intelligence is defined--speed of learning and problem solving--but a definition of human intelligence would tend not to include a dimension of "instinctive intelligence."

Hyperbole-and-one-half-dogFor something very amusing, read Hyperbole-and-a-half's account of trying to measure her dog's intelligence.

"A lingering fear of mine was confirmed last night: My dog might be slightly retarded."

"I've wondered about her intelligence ever since I adopted her and subsequently discovered that she was unable to figure out how stairs worked."

I was interested in this article on what helps people learn from the excellent blog, The Frontal Cortex, written by journalist and science writer, Jonah Lehrer.

"It turned out that those subjects with a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes. As a result, they showed a spike in accuracy immediately following an error. Most interesting, though, was the EEG data, which demonstrated that those with a growth mindset generated a much larger Pe signal, indicating increased attention to their mistakes. (While those with an extremely fixed mindset generated a Pe amplitude around five, those with a growth mindset were closer to fifteen.) What's more, this increased Pe signal was nicely correlated with improvement after error, implying that the extra awareness was paying dividends in performance. Because the subjects were thinking about what they got wrong, they learned how to get it right."

Carole Dweck's research has a lot of appeal. Her recent research has looked at what she calls a "growth mindset" versus "a fixed one." A growth mindset believes that in learning effort counts most, that we make mistakes because we are still learning. A fixed mindset believes that our ability to learn is fixed. We make mistakes because we can't learn, not because we haven't tried hard enough or are still in the process of learning.

The study reported in The Frontal Cortex went one step further, to see what happened in the brain as one tried to learn. First, participants had to detect that they had made an error. Then, they had increased attention to avoid making the error again. The researchers found differences in brain activity between people in the "Growth Mindset" group and in the "Fixed Mindset" group.

But as I thought about this research in the context of Behavioral Psychology, I was struck by the level of theoretical buzz going on here. In class yesterday, Dr Peterson was describing the effectiveness of clicker training for animals and athletes. A radical behaviorist would say that you don't need to hypothesize the existence of mental states such as a "growth mindset" or a "fixed mindset." You just need to provide reinforcement (***CLICK!***) for successive approximations to the target behavior of correctly identifying the middle letter in a meaningless sequence of letters, such as "MMMMM" or "NNMNN." I wonder what the results of this study would look like if the researcher used clicker feedback to reward participants when they correctly identified the middle letter rather than waiting to see what happens when participants makes an error.

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