Animal mindreading: what’s the problem?
© 2014, Psychonomic Society, Inc. Research on mindreading in animals has the potential to address fundamental questions about the nature and origins of the human capacity to ascribe mental states, but it is a research programme that seems to be in trouble. Between 1978 and 2000 several groups used a range of methods, some with considerable promise, to ask whether animals can understand a variety of mental states. Since that time, many enthusiasts have become sceptics, empirical methods have become more limited, and it is no longer clear what research on animal mindreading is trying to find. In this article I suggest that the problems are theoretical and methodological: there is difficulty in conceptualising alternatives to ‘full-blown’ mindreading, and reluctance to use the kinds of empirical methods necessary to distinguish mindreading from other psychological mechanisms. I also suggest ways of tackling the theoretical and methodological problems that draw on recent studies of mindreading in humans, and the resources of experimental psychology more generally. In combination with the use of inanimate control stimuli, species that are unlikely to be capable of mindreading, and the ‘goggles method’, these approaches could restore both vigour and rigour to research on animal mindreading.