Among the many ecological models of behavior, cognition is one that demonstrates an organism’s mental capacity in response to its environment. While cognition has been studied widely in humans, in the last two hundred years, cognition with an ethological framework has given greater insights to both behavioral ecology and evolutionary psychology. Many animals, including elephants, pigs, corvids, and non-human primates have displayed evidence of cognition. It is believed that over time, cognitive skills were an adaptive response to social living, helping individuals to avoid predators, and to complete other daily activities. As a further response to this social living, encephalization progressed, allowing individuals to take on complex roles within groups. Due to these complex roles, greater cognitive specialization occurred because of the greater drive of social relationships within the organism’s environment. Cognitive specialization ranges from the ability to determine another individual’s thoughts (theory of mind) to making false alarm calls with no predation risk present (deception). Through these specializations, the individual is better able to respond to changes within the environment in which it lives. Overall, the study of cognition as an ecological model of behavior serves as a method of understanding adaptations in terms of an organism’s sociality driving encephalization, which later allowed for complex information processing relating to behavioral flexibility in maximizing the benefits which result from cognition.
Cognition serves as a method for examining what an individual knows and how it knows what it knows. The term, cognition, is Latin for “to know, conceptualize, or recognize.” It is also studied in multiple academic disciplines including psychology, computer science, neuroscience, philosophy, and anthropology. Within these disciplines, it is examined within an ecological and evolutionary paradigm of understanding the mental constructs of information. Elements of cognition that are frequently studied include attention, memory, perception, judgment, recognition, reasoning, planning, awareness, problem solving, emotion, and communication. Processes in which cognition can occur are contextual; it can be conscious or unconscious and natural or artificial. Cognition, while encompassing many elements, is also sometimes difficult to define; however, a working definition suggests cognition as a form of information processing and translating of knowledge.
The framework of cognition within the context of an ecological evolutionary concept of information processing is linked to another context: sociality. Sociality, for many anthropological evolutionary scientists, is believed to be the catalyst for developing a greater cognitive potential in response to an increased overall fitness as sociality increased an individual’s fitness within a group. Through socially driven responses such as foraging strategies or predator calls, individuals are able to protect and increase their individual fitness by adjusting their reactions according to the specific situation.
Even though most cognition studies are conducted in captivity, there have been some studies performed in the field. One of the examples of cognitive studies in nature is the examination of deception. Deception is considered a tactical form of cognition in the context of a communication in a social group. In primates and many other organisms, communication is considered costly for an individual as transmitting a signal requires energy to produce and can reveal the location and status of an individual to predators. When deception tactics are used, it is thought there is an extra element of expense involved. Yet, the behavior manages to survive within a behavioral repertoire of some organisms, suggesting there may be some benefit to using tactical deception despite these costs.
In wild bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata), when an aggressor confronts an individual, there are a few options in terms of responses, the individual might choose to flee, to remain and challenge the aggressor, or to remain and ignore the aggressor. It is thought that if the individual chooses to remain, it may use a technique called “concealment by ignoring.” Concealment by ignoring is a form of tactical deception wherein an individual chooses to not fight back directly, but displaces any behavior upon a nearby object such as chewing on a twig, while ignoring the nearby aggressor and hiding any expression of fear or stress (Sinha 2003). In this particular case, the individual is thought to be using deception as instead of fighting or fleeing by hiding its actual response.
According to Whiten and Byrne, for a behavior to be considered as a deceptive tactic, there are two specific requirements: the behavior must be part of the “normal” repertoire and it must be uncommon and varied from contexts in which the behavior would normally appear (1988). Under these requirements, the example of the bonnet macaques’ concealment by ignoring would be considered as a deceptive tactic. Bonnet macaques have been known to chew on twigs, but typically only when food is scarce rather than when confronted by a predator (Towner 2010). Therefore, while this behavior is normal under certain ecological circumstances, it is abnormal in terms of the context in which it occurs; for that reason, the behavior is considered deceptive.
Because deception is meant to be used sparingly, it is difficult to perceive how deception may have evolved as a behavior. After all, the costs of deception are high as individuals can be targeted for aggression, desensitizing group members to not trust the deceptive individual over time, and the skeptical responses thereof (Gouzoules & Gouzoules 2011). The skeptical responses are themselves a response to the desensitization of individuals using deceptive alarm calls too frequently; group members that avoid responding to alarm calls may risk predation or other threats. Still, individual fitness can be increased if deception is used infrequently, as individuals can use deception to their benefit such as monopolizing food resources instead of sharing, Despite the costs, deception persists as a cognitive behavior, suggesting the benefits from the behavior outweigh the potential costs.
One of the suggested explanations for the persistence of deception as a behavior relates back to encephalization. If sociality is the driver for encephalization, it is possible the infrequent uses of and benefits from deception, used in the right situations, can help an individual’s fitness where net costs are not incurred, enabling individuals to pass on the traits of an enlarged brain to potential future offspring. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that the rates and use of deception were correlated with neocortical volume in the primate brain, while there was no association between volume of other parts of the brain or to variations in group sizes within 18 examined primate species (Byrne & Corp 2004). These findings reflect the idea in which social groups may restrain the cognitive abilities of individuals, as group sizes tend to be an amalgamation of multiple factors including ecological constraints. Thus, rapid learning leading to deception may result from competition within group members as a strategy for individual fitness.
Even though this idea paints an image of competition being the force in which cognition (and therefore, deception) evolves, this is only a part of it. After all, group living is sufficient for cognition because adaptations have allowed them to live comfortably within social groups as opposed to solitary living (Barrett & Henzi 2005; Holekamp 2006). Individuals who negotiate with other group members are thought of as cognitive, as they are thought to process information for their individual fitness benefit as well as the collective group benefit. Furthermore, negotiation skills are less costly on an individual rather than aggressive tactics as the individual does not have to expend energy fighting back or tending to potential wounds. Although cognition is studied on an individual level, there is evidence that groups collectively process knowledge as well.
Cognition, from the perspective of a model of evolutionary ecological behaviors, gives individuals an understanding as to how information processing benefits individual fitness in social groups. While sociality serves as the medium for individuals to adjust their behavior, there are costs and benefits which come from the plasticity of behavioral adjustment. Costs such as potential aggression for using deceptive tactics. However, it seems the benefits of receiving access to higher quality such as fruits by having a mental map or occasionally deceiving group members to avoid fights might override the costs. As an organism processes information within the world around itself and acts flexibly on the received knowledge, the individual is responding to the environmental pressures in which it lives through cognition.
Barrett, L. & Henzi, P. (2005). The social nature of primate cognition. Proc R Soc Lond B, 272: 1865-1875.
Byrne, R.W. & Corp, N. (2004). Neocortex size predicts deception rate in primates. Proc R Soc Lond B, 271: 1693-1699.
Gouzoules, H. & Gouzoules, S. (2011). The conundrum of communication. In Campbell, C.J., Fuentes, A., MacKinnon, K.C., Bearder, S.K., & Stumpf, R.M. (Eds.), Primates in Perspective, (2nd ed.), (pp. 626-637), New York: Oxford U. Press.
Holekamp, K.E. (2006). Questioning the social intelligence hypothesis. Trends Cog Sci, 30(10): 1-5.
Sinha, A. (2003). A beautiful mind: attribution and intentionality in wild bonnet macaques Current Science, 85 (7), 1021-1031
Towner, S. (2010). Concept of mind in non-human primates. Biosci Horizons, 3(1): 96-104.
Whiten, A., & Byrne, R.W. (1988). Tactical deception in primates. Behav Brain Sci, 11: 233-273.