Since time immemorial we have been trying to show how fundamentally different we are from other animals. We have been through the opposable thumb era, the tool-use era, the language era, and so on. Each time one of these uniqueness explanations has been disproven, we have raised the bar. We must, it seems be show ourselves to be quite different from other animals no matter what. The truth is we are animals, mammals in fact. So where has the argument gone that we are so special?
To theory of mind, that’s where. Theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states to self and others. Do you think your pet might not do something when you are present because you might disapprove of it but would do the same thing when you are away or distracted? Do you think your dog might be more inclined to react defensively when you are anxious about a situation or, if insecure, might capitalize on a stranger’s fearfulness of them by exhibiting aggression?
Do Animals Have a Theory of Mind?
The answer to all those questions is yes. So they do have theory of mind. Animals are more convincingly said to lack secondary theory of mind; a more complicated version of theory of mind in which one determines peoples’ states of mind based on the behavior and expressions of third parties. But I’m not so sure this ability is completely lacking in our pets. Animals also feel empathy and not just for their own kind. They feel sorry for us when something in our lives is getting us down. Just ask any dog owner whether his dog has ever picked up on his down moods. The answer will be yes, of course. Pets are not the same as us but the differences are more quantitative than qualitative. How’s that for a theory?