Can Animals Count?

Many people, pet owners or not, have the belief that animals in fact have the ability to be able to count. This has caused a large debate, however, many scientists became doubtful ever since the case of ‘Clever Hans’ about 100 years ago.  Hans was a horse that had his owner believing that he had a mathematical ability. Hans’ owner said to have taught the horse to add, subtract, multiply, divide, tell the time, work with fractions, and keep track of the calendar. It was said that the horse would answer both oral and written mathematical question by tapping his hoof the correct amount of times. Hans would perform his talent in front of crowds all over Germany, free of charge, and amazed many people including his owner.

As Clever Hans became well known throughout the country, Scientists became known of his abilities and were interested to investigate. Carl Stumpf, a psychologist, gathered a group in order to study the horse. It was observed through experiments that 89% of the time, Hans gave the correct answer when able to see the person who asked the question. However, when the person was out of the horse’s sight, the answers were only accurate 6% of the time. It was also found that Hans couldn’t answer correctly if the person themselves didn’t know the answer.

The overall conclusion the scientists found was disappointing for the owner of the ‘clever’ horse. It was explained that when answering a question, Hans could sense when to stop tapping due to the person’s reaction. He would begin to tap more slowly when he got nearer to the answer and eventually knew when to stop through sensing the expectation from the person. The owner did not realise that, by looking at Hans, he was giving him unspoken signals.

Through the tests conducted by the scientists, it was proven that Hans in fact didn’t understand concepts of mathematics, however, was clever in order to understand what was expected of him. This became known as the “Clever Hans effect” which is used in psychology to describe when an animal or person can sense what someone wants them to do without using deliberate signals. It’s now important to take this into consideration when testing an animal’s or a human’s intelligence. However, the question still remains. Can animals count? or are they in fact sensing what us humans want them to answer.


1 thought on “Can Animals Count?

  1. Jodie Colvin

    This was a very interesting post to read Sam, I am intrigued to know what your opinions are on this subject? Do you believe that animals can count?


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