Can Chimps Understand the Minds of Others?

Our study suggests that chimpanzees understood others’ goals, but it might be different from human-like “mind-reading.” Humans may read others’ minds without any obvious cue, but chimpanzees may not.

The chimpanzees in our study seemed to understand what others needed by visually assessing their partner’s tool-use “situation.” They also understood the partner’s needs for help by watching the partner reaching his or her arm toward them, a very obvious cue. The result of the “cannot see” condition clearly indicates that when visual access was interrupted, the chimpanzees could not understand exactly what the partner needed, although they understood from the partner’s arm reaching behavior that the partner was requesting something.

What we would like to emphasize is that chimpanzees can understand others’ goals from obvious cues, and that their understanding of others’ goals is not directly connected to their prosociality, which may be mediated by their understanding of being requested. Therefore, this highlights human uniqueness in our “mind-reading” skills and elaborated communication skills with language and pointing, which could not be found in the chimpanzees.

Shinya Yamamoto is a program-specific assistant professor at the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University.

Category: Q&A

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