Apes have a theory of mind

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I read an article in the Guardian this week about a recently published study that suggested great apes have a theory of mind. This contrasts with previous studies and, if correct, raises profound questions about a number of questions: the relationship between humans and animals, and the possibility of animals having moral rights, to name just two.

The newspaper article says that

In a fresh take on a classic psychology experiment, the apes were able to correctly anticipate that someone would look for a hidden item in a specific location, even if the apes knew that the item was no longer there.

The ability to predict that someone holds a mistaken belief – which psychologists refer to as a “theory of mind” – is seen as a milestone in cognitive development that children normally acquire by the age of five.

The findings overturn the view that the ability to place oneself in another’s shoes is uniquely human.

You can find the actual research at the Science website here. The abstract says that

Humans operate with a “theory of mind” with which they are able to understand that others’ actions are driven not by reality but by beliefs about reality, even when those beliefs are false. Although great apes share with humans many social-cognitive skills, they have repeatedly failed experimental tests of such false-belief understanding. We use an anticipatory looking test (originally developed for human infants) to show that three species of great apes reliably look in anticipation of an agent acting on a location where he falsely believes an object to be, even though the apes themselves know that the object is no longer there. Our results suggest that great apes also operate, at least on an implicit level, with an understanding of false beliefs.

The actual study lies behind a paywall but looks as though it will repay careful analysis.

Posted on October 7, 2016