ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Now a story that might be of special interest to you if you have a baby or a dog, or a wolf. A new experiment suggests that in certain situations, dogs and 10-month-old babies have more in common than dogs and wolves. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Decades ago, the well-known child psychologist Jean Piaget did a classic experiment. It goes like this: take a little baby, say, a 10-month-old, put the baby in front of two screens, screen A and screen B. Then show the baby a toy.
Dr. ADAM MIKLOSI (Professor of Biology, Eotvos Lorand University): Hello, here is a toy. You make sure that the subject actually watches.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's Adam Miklosi, a biologist in Hungary. He says, as the baby watches, you put the toy behind screen A, and say, okay, get the toy.
Dr. MIKLOSI: And they always find it and are correct in finding objects.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: You repeat this a few times, always putting the toy behind screen A and then you do something different. You say, okay baby, watch. And you move the toy, so that it's behind screen B.
Dr. MIKLOSI: They follow it quite clearly with head movement or with eye movement.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The baby sees the toy go behind screen B. But, here's the crazy thing. To get the toy, the baby will still reach for screen A. Babies grow out of this by the time they're one, but it's such a weird observation that psychologists have been arguing about what it means for decades. Some people say it's babies' perception of the permanence of an object. Others think it might have something to do with how babies learn from other people. Now, Miklosi is mainly interested dogs rather than babies. He works at Eotvos University in Budapest, studying how dogs have evolved so they can live with people. He wondered what dogs would do in this classic experiment. Would they make the same mistake as a baby?
Unidentified Woman: Lucky, (unintelligible).
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He and his colleagues basically did the test with dogs and their wild relatives - wolves, ones raised by people. The scientists found that wolves were not like young babies. They made a beeline for the right hiding place. But dogs acted like a 10-month-old infant, going to screen A even after seeing someone put the toy behind screen B. Here's what Miklosi thinks is going on.
Dr. MIKLOSI: The dogs are sort of looking at the human as a sort of a teacher that has the privilege of some sort of information. And they don't want to override it with their own understanding of the case.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he thinks maybe the babies are doing that as well. His team did another version of this experiment - one that didn't involve a human teacher at all. The researchers rigged things up so that now a string moved the toy around. Dogs and babies had an interesting reaction. Without a human, they went to the right place to get the toy.
Dr. MIKLOSI: For me, this was the biggest surprise.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: For Miklosi, it suggests that both dogs and babies are primed to look at other people for information about the world. But they did find one interesting difference. When they redid the classic experiment but had more than one person do the hiding, it didn't matter to the babies. They kept reaching for screen A, suggesting they were able to generalize about people. But adding a new person changed everything for the dogs.
Dr. MIKLOSI: For the dog, if you're changing the person, the knowledge is gone.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The dogs ignored what had previously happened and, like wolves, went straight to the right hiding place. The results are reported in the journal Science.
Professor CLIVE WYNNE (University of Florida): It's a very original approach. It's a very thought-provoking experiment.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Clive Wynne studies dog cognition at the University of Florida. He says this research raises all sorts of questions.
Prof. WYNNE: There's a puzzle in this paper in that you've got adult dogs behaving like 10-month-old children. When 10-month-old children are only going to act like this for two more months, they're going to grow out of it very quickly.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Wynne says it's important to figure out how dogs see our social world. In part to better understand ourselves but also because American homes contain around 70 million dogs - far more dogs than little children.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.