Transitive inference is a type of logical reasoning that was thought to be reserved for complex creatures like mammals. However new studies have shown that wasps, creatures without complicated nervous systems, are capable of using transitive inference.
At the University of Michigan, Elizabeth Tibbets conducted a study with paper wasps, and insect known for mixing saliva with fibers from dead wood and plant stems in order to construct their nests. They are sometimes also referred to as umbrella wasps. In the experiment, the wasps were placed into individual rectangular containers that had one of five colors, labeled from A to E, at both ends. Underneath the container, towards the side that was highest in the alphabet, and electric shock element was placed.
At first, the wasps were trained to recognize which letters were next to one another, i.e. A to B, B to C, etc. Eventually, the study shifted and the wasps were meant to pick the letter that was lowest in the alphabet from a pairing of letters that were not adjacent to one another, i.e. C to E or A to D. The process of transitive inference means that the wasps would have to deduct that while C was lower than D, and D was lower than E, that therefore C was lower than E.
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Astoundingly, over 60% of the wasps were able to answer correctly and avoid being shocked. Tibbets believes that while wasps are generally social creatures, that forces them to learn transitive inference in order to figure out dominance and rank amongst their hive.
Similar studies have been conducted with honeybees. However, it is believed that since they don’t have the same social structure within their species that that is a large part while they were not able to use transitive inference.