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Ape Theory of Mind

October 7, 2016

Chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans exhibit a very “human” trait: an awareness that others can act on false beliefs about reality.



A still image from an entertaining movie shown to great apes during the experiment. Red dots represent where an ape’s gaze went during the experiment. (Christopher Krupenye, Fumihiro Kano, MPI-EVA, Kumamoto Sanctuary)


An ape’s theory of mind. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

You watch a video of two people with a ball in a box. Person A leaves and Person B hides the ball under a blanket. When Person A returns, you expect them to look in the box for the ball; not under the blanket where the ball is actually located. This ability to comprehend that others’ beliefs about reality can differ from our own is part of what makes us human. Or is it? Now, researchers Chris Krupenye, Fumihiro Kano and their colleagues report in Science magazine that some great apes can also recognize false beliefs. Krupenye says previous studies failed to detect this because they made too many cognitive demands on the apes.

CHRIS KRUPENYE (Duke University):

In contrast, in our paradigm, all they have to do is sit there and watch a movie to learn about the other’s mental state, and that would elicit their theory of mind. 


Also key was making videos the apes found entertaining. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.  


Story by Susanne Bard