Is there anybody left on the Internet who's immune to the vicious charms of honey badgers? If so, you MUST check this out:
There's no doubt that honey badgers deserve their place in the Internet's 'Gallery of Memes', but animal Houdinis have a longstanding place in the history of Psychology, because they tell us so much about learned behaviour.
Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) was the pioneering psychologist who investigated this, with those most uncooperative of research participants: cats!
Thorndike built cages for the cats which were "puzzle boxes" - they could be opened by sliding latches but to do this the cat had to do something non-obvious, like pull on a cord hanging from the top of the box. This required much trial-and-error. Thorndike then sat back and observed how the cats set about freeing themselves.
Of course, the cats scrabble around, trying to open the box, and eventually pulled the cord and released the latch by accident. However, Thorndike noticed that, each time the cat was put back in the box, it got quicker and quicker at lifting the latch and releasing itself.
Thorndike was struck by how accidental behaviour turns into deliberate behaviour through learning. He called this the "Law of Effect":
responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation
There's a temptation to conclude from this that this is what ALL learning is like: just accidents, trial-and-error and creatures sticking with a strategy that seems to work. That's how Stoffel the honey badger escapes from his pen. That's how octopodes escape from jam jars.
Yes - octopodes. Not octopi. Not octopuses. Octopodes (oct-TOP-pod-ees). Yup. You heard me. That's the correct plural of octopus and I'm using it because that's the kind of guy I am.
The psychologists who went down this road were the Behaviourists and they believed that EVERYTHING is learned behaviour and ALL behaviour is learned like this. How did you learn to walk? Speak? Brush your teeth? Win boss-fights on Halo? Write essays in History? It was all learned from scratch, by trial-and-error, according the the Law of Effect.
One person clearly taking notes was film director George A. Romero, the man who kickstarted the "Zombie Apocalypse" movie genre. In Day of the Dead (1985), Romero's zombies learn to operate simple machines through the Law of Effect. One of them, "Bub", listens to music, answers the phone, shaves and salutes. Of course, he learns to fire a gun too.
Are we any different from Bub or Thorndike's cats? This is a problem known as "Philosophical Zombies" or "P-Zombies" that asks, is there any difference between zombies that "go through the motions" of reading and talking and interacting, and us? Are we all of us just mindlessly repeating behaviours we've learned, only very complicated ones, like blogging?
I'm not convinced. When I watch Stoffel the honey badger get up to his escapes, it doesn't strike me as an animal that stumbled upon a neat trick (like opening latches), but more like a restless intelligence that is looking for solutions to a problem. That's why he digs up rocks to make a ladder: not because he did it once by accident and it happened to work out (because who accidentally digs up rocks?) but because he has successfully figured something out.
In other words, I think Cognitive Psychology is at work here, not the Learning Approach - though there's clearly a bit of learning going on, because Pammy clearly learns what to do by imitating Stoffels. But even this sort of learning - learning by imitation - involves a big dollop of cognition as well. Albert Bandura developed Social Learning Theory in this way, because it seemed to him there had to be more at work than just trial-and-error when it came to learning. He calls it Social Cognitive Theory now and has done since 1986 but no one's told the Exam Boards that so hush!
In the meantime, it's good to see honey badgers and octopodes (there, you see that? I did it again - octOPodes!) rising up to challenge cats for the title "King of the Internet Memes". If octopodes freak you out slightly and you wonder, "What if these creatures ever learned to come onto land - would the human race be doomed?" then may I introduce your nightmares to... the Mimic Octopus...!
The Psychology Wizard is Jonathan Rowe. I'm a teacher and writer, living in the Fens of Lincolnshire. It sure is flat here. I'm writing a Roman Horror Novel at the moment. Check out Tinderspark and The Thief Of Faces if you fancy a good read.