Measuring variation in cognition

C. Rowe, S.D. Healy

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

203 Citations (Scopus)


Across a range of disciplines, researchers are becoming increasingly interested in studying the variation in cognitive abilities found within populations. Behavioral ecology is no exception: the pursuit to understand the evolution of cognition has lead to a rapidly expanding literature that uses various tasks to measure individuals' cognitive abilities. While this is an exciting time, we are concerned that without being clearer as to the cognitive abilities under test it will be difficult to design appropriate experiments and the interpretation of the data may be unsound. The aim of this review is 3-fold: 1) to highlight problems with designing tasks for measuring individual variation in cognitive abilities and interpreting their outcomes; 2) to increase awareness that noncognitive factors can cause variation in performance among individuals; and 3) to question the theoretical basis for thinking that performance in any cognitive task should necessarily correlate with a measure of fitness. Our take-home message is that variability in performance in cognitive tasks does not necessarily demonstrate individual variation in cognitive ability, and that we need to both design more stringent cognitive tests and be more cautious in their interpretation.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1287-1292
Number of pages6
JournalBehavioral Ecology
Issue number6
Early online date3 Jun 2014
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014


  • Cognition
  • Evolution
  • Individual differences
  • Innovation
  • Motivation
  • Problem solving


Dive into the research topics of 'Measuring variation in cognition'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this