Comparative psychometrics: establishing what differs is central to understanding what evolves

Christoph Johannes Voelter, Brandon Tinklenberg, Josep Call, Amanda Madeleine Seed

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Citations (Scopus)
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Cognitive abilities cannot be measured directly. What we can measure is individual variation in task performance. In this paper, we first make the case for why we should be interested in mapping individual differences in task performance on to particular cognitive abilities: we suggest it is crucial for examining the causes and consequences of variation both within and between species. As a case study, we examine whether multiple measures of inhibitory control for nonhuman animals do indeed produce correlated task performance; however, no clear pattern emerges that would support the notion of a common cognitive ability underpinning individual differences in performance. We advocate a psychometric approach involving a three-step program to make theoretical and empirical progress: first, we need tasks that reveal signature limits in performance. Second, we need to assess the reliability of individual differences in task performance. Third, multi-trait multi-method test batteries will be instrumental in validating cognitive abilities. Together, these steps will help us to establish what varies between individuals that could impact their fitness, and ultimately shape the course of the evolution of animal minds. Finally, we propose executive functions, including working memory, inhibitory control, and attentional shifting, as a sensible starting point for this endeavour.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20170283
Number of pages10
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. B, Biological Sciences
Issue number1756
Early online date13 Aug 2018
Publication statusPublished - 26 Sept 2018


  • Individual differences
  • Construct validity
  • Executive functions
  • Inhibitory control
  • Comparative cognition
  • Multi-trait multi-method test batteries


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