Can Rats Reason?

Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice 2 (4):404-429 (2015)
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Since at least the mid-1980s claims have been made for rationality in rats. For example, that rats are capable of inferential reasoning (Blaisdell, Sawa, Leising, & Waldmann, 2006; Bunsey & Eichenbaum, 1996), or that they can make adaptive decisions about future behavior (Foote & Crystal, 2007), or that they are capable of knowledge in propositional-like form (Dickinson, 1985). The stakes are rather high, because these capacities imply concept possession and on some views (e.g., Rödl, 2007; Savanah, 2012) rationality indicates self-consciousness. I evaluate the case for rat rationality by analyzing 5 key research paradigms: spatial navigation, metacognition, transitive inference, causal reasoning, and goal orientation. I conclude that the observed behaviors need not imply rationality by the subjects. Rather, the behavior can be accounted for by noncognitive processes such as hard-wired species typical predispositions or associative learning or (nonconceptual) affordance detection. These mechanisms do not necessarily require or implicate the capacity for rationality. As such there is as yet insufficient evidence that rats can reason. I end by proposing the ‘Staircase Test,’ an experiment designed to provide convincing evidence of rationality in rats.

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Stephane Joseph Savanah
Macquarie University


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