Do Animals Have Insight?

Have you ever tried to solve the nine-dot problem?   Basically, it involves nine dots arranged in a 3 x 3 square matrix which you are told to join using four consecutive straight lines without lifting the pencil from the paper.   Most people trying to solve the problem waste time drawing four lines within the square.  Solving the problem means having that “aha!” moment and realizing that you need to think “outside the box” by extending the lines beyond the square to allow all nine dots to be joined.   

Along with being a popular thinking test used by management consultants for decades, the nine-dot problem also represents a way of understanding how human insight works.   According to researchers studying the “aha” moment and the cognition underlying intuition,  the “aha” process usually comes in one of three ways:

  1. The “aha” moment can appear suddenly, followed a subjective exclamation of surprise and delight (think “Eureka!”).
  2. The moment can come after repeated failures which provide no apparent help in solving the problem.    In many cases, the failures allow people to “home in” on the correct answer which is when the “aha” moment finally happens.
  3. The “aha” moment comes after the problem is completely restructured making a new approach possible.

Though studying human insight is relatively straightforward since human subjects can provide verbal feedback about how their thought processes work, what can researchers learn about how animals solve problems?   Are animals capable of having “aha” moments as well?  And how could we even tell?

To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.  

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