The Sphex story: How the cognitive sciences kept repeating an old and questionable anecdote

Fred Keijzer*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)
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The Sphex story is an anecdote about a female digger wasp that at first sight seems to act quite intelligently, but subsequently is shown to be a mere automaton that can be made to repeat herself endlessly. Dennett and Hofstadter made this story well known and widely influential within the cognitive sciences, where it is regularly used as evidence that insect behavior is highly rigid. The present paper discusses the origin and subsequent empirical investigation of the repetition reported in the Sphex story. The repetition was first observed by Henri Fabre in 1879, and the last empirical study I found was published in 1985. In contrast to the story's clear message, the actual results have always been equivocal: the endless repetition is not standard. In addition, this repetition itself has become a minor aside in the literature on digger wasps when put in the perspective of many other examples of adaptiveness and flexibility. Nevertheless, the story and its message have to this day persevered within the cognitive sciences. For some reason, the counterevidence has been neglected time and again. The paper closes by presenting two different but compatible hypotheses that could explain why humans keep repeating this particular anecdote.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)502-519
Number of pages18
JournalPhilosophical Psychology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1-Aug-2013


  • Animal Behavior
  • Digger Wasps
  • History of Cognitive Science
  • Sphex

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