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Cognition and tool-use economy. Insights from experimental, neuro- and comparative psychology – ECOTOOL

ECOTOOL: Cognition and tool-use economy. Insights from experimental, neuro- and comparative psychology

Tools offer an economy by allowing the user to reduce the various costs (e.g., time) required to accomplish a task. If we keep in mind that tool use is also a matter of behavioral economy, several questions arise. Does the human tool-use propensity reflect the human ability to excel to direct toward the most economical options? Does cumulative cultural evolution reflect the human ability to extract from tool behaviors performed by conspecifics the ones that are the most economical?

General objectives

The goal of the project ECOTOOL is to investigate the cognitive bases of tool-use economy. The project aims to address four fundamental questions. The first is what is the specificity of our cognitive system that leads us to favor the use of tool solutions. For instance, do we have the trend to overestimate the benefits and underestimate the costs associated to tool use. The second is whether our way of assessing tool-use economy is based on cognitive processes common to other situations where risks have to be taken. The third is whether the potential tool-centered bias is also present in other animal species that also use tools (New-Caledonian Crows). The fourth is whether cumulative technological evolution reflects the human ability to perceive the most economical tool actions made by conspecifics. In sum, the project ECOTOOL aims to adresses several key issues on both psychology and anthropology.

The project is based on studies in experimental psychology, neuropsychology and comparative psychology.

To date, we have demonstrated that there is a tool-centered bias in humans and that this bias can be modulated by the élever of expertise of users. We have also shown that this bias does not exist in nonhuman users such as crows. We have also found that cumulative evolution could be based on technical reasoning skills allowing learners to extract the best information from what teachers can show them.

We intend to deepen our understanding by collecting data from brain-damaged patients as well as by starting a fMRI study on the issue of cumulative evolution.

To date, the project have allowed us to publish 17 papers in relatively good journals:
- American Psychologist
- Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (n = 2)
- Psychological review (n = 2)
- Neuroscience & BioBehavioral Reviews
etc.

Humans are not unique in using tools. Nevertheless, human tool use differs from that known to occur in nonhumans. For instance, only humans spontaneously engage in object-object manipulations and employ a wide range of tools (i.e., human tool-use propensity). In addition, only human societies develop technical equipment, which is improved over generations (i.e., cumulative cultural evolution). Studies have focused so far on the nature of the knowledge involved in tool use. Although interesting, these studies do not offer answers as to the origins of human tool-use propensity or cumulative cultural evolution.

To modify our way of conceptualizing the cognitive basis of human tool use, it is needed to stress a largely overlooked aspect: Tools offer an economy by allowing the user to reduce the various costs (e.g., time) required to accomplish a task. If we keep in mind that tool use is also a matter of behavioral economy, several questions arise. Does the human tool-use propensity reflect the human ability to excel to direct toward the most economical options? Does cumulative cultural evolution reflect the human ability to extract from tool behaviors performed by conspecifics the ones that are the most economical? Except for one study we conducted, no study so far has examined how people evaluate the costs and benefits associated with tool use. Data on this issue are also lacking in neuroeconomics or behavioral economics.

The project ECOTOOL aims to initiate a series of studies on the cognitive basis of what we call “the tool-use related economy”. More specifically, the project aims to provide insights about the human tool-use propensity (Sections 1, 2, 3) and cumulative cultural evolution (Section 4). The questions raised are as follows: (1) Do humans correctly evaluate the costs and benefits associated with tool use? And, if not, what is the specificity of our cognitive system that can explain it? (Section 1: Experimental psychology); (2) Is there a common cognitive basis for the cost/benefit evaluation related to tool use and other risky behaviors? (Section 2: Neuropsychology); (3) Do humans differ from animal tool users in the way they evaluate tool-use related economy? (Section 3: Comparative psychology); (4) Can the cumulative cultural evolution be explained by the ability of humans to extract from tool actions performed by conspecifics the ones that are the most economical? (Section 4: Experimental psychology).

The project falls within the creation of a new, young team within the laboratory for the Study of Cognitive Mechanisms (EMC, University of Lyon, France). This new team will be official in January 2016 and will be called COSy (Cognition, Outils, Systèmes in French; Cognition, Tools, Systems in English; Members: François Osiurak, Jordan Navarro, Emanuelle Reynaud). One of the main objectives of this young team is to improve our understanding as to the cognitive basis of tool-use related economy, in experimental psychology, neuropsychology, comparative psychology, neuroimaging, and ergonomics. In this frame, the project ECOTOOL is a good way to develop this new team. Note also that the laboratory EMC has great hopes in the creation of this new team and, as a result, is ready to provide funds to complete the financing requested here, via one of its sources of financing, that is, the LABEX CORTEX (ANR-11-LABX-0042). Besides, this project is possible because of current, regional and European collaborations between this new team and other researchers on the topic. Thus, this project will also involve Sophie Jacquin-Courtois of the Integration, Multisensory, Perception, Action, Cognition Team (IMPACT; University of Lyon, CNRS, INSERM, Lyon Hospitals, France) and Auguste von Bayern of the Behavioral Ecology Research Group (University of Oxford, England).

Project coordination

François OSIURAK (Laboratoire Etudes des Mécanismes Cognitifs - Université Lyon 2)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.

Partner

EMC Laboratoire Etudes des Mécanismes Cognitifs - Université Lyon 2

Help of the ANR 198,484 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: September 2014 - 42 Months

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