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Helpful Parrots Teach Us Kindness

I’ve discussed many times how other species display a helpfulness and desire to assist in times of need. The list has included capuchins, elephants, rats, bonobos, and vampire bats. This cooperativeness and willingness to share has even been directed toward strangers. The latest research published last week shows that African grey parrots join the list.

Many people may remember Alex, the African grey parrot studied for many years by Dr. Irene Pepperberg. Theirs was a special relationship which extended beyond the lab. Their groundbreaking work together transformed our ideas about language, cognition, and the capacity to connect with other species. Her like with Alex, who died in 2007, is detailed in the wonderful book, Alex & Me. From this book and piles of research, one could intuit that African grey parrots have a theory of mind, that is, being able to “put oneself in another’s shoes” so to speak.

A recent paper published in Current Biology adds to the growing evidence that other species do indeed have a "theory of mind". And this is a BIG deal. Let me explain. For quite some time it has been argued (among scientists of course) whether or not other animals have the ability to infer mental states of others. One could say humans are quite poor at this task—just look at any married couple. We even have sayings like “when you assume you make an ass out of everyone”. In my opinion, this is because we are overly confident in our perceptual abilities and project our mental states onto others. Nevertheless, we can ask people about their mental states, whereas we cannot similarly ask other species about theirs.

How can we get at this? Through clever experiments. A typical scenario might be to create a situation where one individual has to demonstrate that another individual is experiencing a state of mind. This is where the recent study on African grey parrots comes in. The study compared African grey parrots with Blue-headed macaws. The first step was to teach the birds the value of a currency. In this case it was teaching them that a token had value and could be traded for something the birds were keen to have— a tasty treat. Not surprisingly, the birds caught on quickly and were highly motivated to trade tokens for, in this case walnuts. Incidentally, it took exactly 2 sessions for the birds to learn the value of the token.

Given how much they like walnuts one might expect the birds to be selfish and not help another bird get a piece of walnut, or even to “know” that another bird needed help. The set up was that one individual had tokens but had no way to trade it for walnuts and another individual had a way to trade tokens for walnuts but had no tokens! A conundrum indeed. What did they do? They were able to ascertain that a neighbor was unable to get any food and they helped them out, even when they couldn’t see the neighbor. To be fair, they were more likely to help a closer friend, but the African greys were still helpful to birds they weren’t as close with and when they might not get anything back for their effort. Back to the theory of mind issue, the African greys were able to infer that a neighbor could not access walnuts and inferred that they would want to, thus they helped.

Dick Daniels CC BY-SA

You might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the macaws. That’s because they didn’t help. Does that mean they don’t have theory of mind? No. It might mean they are simply not as helpful since they rarely transferred tokens to a partner, even when they could see them. Why aren’t they as willing to cooperate? The researchers speculate that the difference may be the result of broader differences in social behavior. Blue-headed macaws are social but they form tighter social groups and may not be as open to strangers. African grey parrots hang out in large groups and may splinter off into smaller groups with different individuals on a regular basis. This may mean they are more tolerant of strangers and, thus, see others more like themselves.

Andrew Bernard CC BY 2.0

A final word. In my blog post on How to Cultivate Empathy I touch on this idea. Essentially, the more friends we have from varied backgrounds, the more we see others like ourselves. The more we see others like ourselves, the more we are able to empathize and step in and help. A complete stranger is no longer a complete stranger, but someone just like us. That is what African grey parrots can do. So if they can do it, surely we can to.

Reference: Désirée Brucks, Auguste M.P. von Bayern. Parrots Voluntarily Help Each Other to Obtain Food Rewards. Current Biology, 2020; DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.11.030

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