The ability to disengage from our own desire to cater to someone else’s wishes is thought to be a unique feature of human cognition. In a study published in the journal, Biology Letters, Prof Clayton and her colleagues challenge this assumption.
Despite wanting something different to eat, male Eurasian jays can disengage from their own current desire in order to feed the female what she wants even when her desires are different to his.
Study first author Dr Ljerka Ostojić from the University of Cambridge explained: “we found that males could respond to the female’s desire even when their own desire was conflicting. That said, the males were also partially biased by what they wanted – a bias similar to one commonly found in human children and adults.”
This ability to ascribe to another individual an internal life like one’s own and at the same time understand that the other’s internal, psychological states might differ from one’s own is called state-attribution. “As humans, we ‘put ourselves into someone else’s shoes’ in order to respond to what the other person wants. Although we are biased by our own current desires, we can inhibit these to put the wants and desires of another before our own. The current findings show that the jays can also do this. So what this research suggests is that a common mechanism might underlie ‘desire-state attribution’ in humans and jays,” Prof Clayton said.