Do you want to see a magic trick?

As part of our Animal Welfare Indicators project I’m creating an online learning object which describes an experiment testing whether or not goats know an object is there when they can’t see it.

Now don’t go doubting the intelligence of goats just yet, this question is pretty multifaceted. It begins with human babies and the game of Peekaboo. If you’ve ever entertained a small baby, you might have fallen back on hiding behind your hands and enjoying the delighted giggles of this apparent magic trick.

There is some debate in the scientific community over whether babies are really fooled by this trick, or whether they don’t have an understanding of object permanence until they’re about two years old.

At some point babies develop the ability to understand that objects still exist even when they’re out of sight. Take a baby’s favourite toy and hide it behind a screen, the baby will look behind the screen. The fact that an object must exist outside of our perception of it can lead to some fun set ups. Check out this video to watch a magician performing a simple magic trick in front of some dogs. The dogs, fully expecting the object to reappear where it logically should, clearly act confused and start searching other logical places (such as beneath the hands, behind them, etc.)

The magic act Penn and Teller explain the anatomy of a trick that uses sleight of hand in this, slightly grainy video. The steps they include are: Palm – Switch – Ditch – Steal – Load – Simulation – Misdirection.

But none of these steps work if you can’t understand that an object should exist where you don’t know.

A psychologist named Piaget came up with a little experiment to test whether object permanance has developed in children – you can try it yourself with the nearest available baby or pet (please ask permission of the bill payer).

For this set up you will need an object and for an animal it will need to be something they’ll be motivated to look for. I suggest a treat (but preferably one which doesn’t smell too strongly).

Show your subject the object and then place it inside a cup or other container (or behind a makeshift screen, like a half open DVD case). Now for the magic trick. Place this container or screen, with the treat still hidden within, behind another screen (such as an open book propped up on the floor).

Watch what happens next. The theory goes that if your baby or pet understands that objects exist even when they cannot be observed, it will look for the treat behind the open book. This leap of logic means the subject must understand the object still exists when its inside the first container, and that when the first container is hidden, the hidden object persists even then.

Or you could hire a magician and get them to confuse the hell out of your pets and babies. Because that’s hilarious.

 


4 Comments

Linda Lyon · May 8, 2014 at 6:40 pm

I love the dogs’ reactions. Just tried the hiding treat trick on on You Know Who – what if your animal is simply stupid?

    jilly · May 8, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    Yeah I want to try it on you know who and Katie and film it. A direct comparison to see how stupid you know who is …

Linda Lyon · May 14, 2014 at 9:47 pm

Might be a tad unfair, Katie is obviously incredibly motivated by food . . .

In Defence of Cats | fluffysciences · June 11, 2014 at 7:27 pm

[…] Causal understanding is not a cat’s strong point (Whitt et al, 2009).  Dogs and babies can do object permanance tests, cats struggle (and some cats don’t even […]

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