Do Chimpanzees Have Theory of Mind?


Chimpanzees” by Klaus Post is licensed under CC BY 2.0

In 1978, Premack and Woodruff asked a question that still has people debating over it, “Does this chimpanzee have a “theory of mind” Many studies have been done to test the presence of human-like social reasoning and they have had positive results with animals acting in ways that show they may have Theory of mind. The results may be positive and for the possibility of the presence of ToM but many opinions differ on how to interpret these findings, some find it convincing while others not so much. One of the first problems people see in the experiments is that the results cannot tell the difference between “mind readers” and “ behavior readers”. Another issue people find in the research is that certain results are seen as evidence because of biases in favor of the interpretations.our own biases are in favor of the interpretations. This debate has been going on for years and we are left wondering why hasn’t this been resolved or disproven yet?

The main focus besides on humans, of scientists, have been on apes and monkeys as well as the corvid birds. Recent studies have resulted in the finding of chimpanzees and rhesus macaques have an understanding of goals and perceptions of others on top of what others know but it does not include what others falsely believe. In addition, jays and ravens also have similar understandings.

There are three different types of models that studies have used. The first, begging paradigm, was designed to study chimps understanding of visual access. During the trials, each subject was given a seeing and nonseeing experimenter. Earlier studies had conflicting results with studies done a few years after thus it is unclear what affects the performance of the Chimps in this model. The second model is the “competitive paradigm”. This was the first to produce positive results that supported chimps using visual perspectives.

The second model is the “competitive paradigm”. This was the first to produce positive results that supported chimps using visual perspectives. Hare, Call, and Tomasello (2001) found that “if one piece of food was hidden on the subordinate’s side of one barrier, while the dominant was watching, while another piece of food was hidden on the subordinate’s side of a different barrier, while the subordinate was in private, then the subordinate chose to approach the two food pieces indiscriminately, indicating that it could not take into account which food piece the dominant knew about.”

A third model is the “caching paradigm” which was used with Western scrub jays. This model uses the bird’s tendency to bury food items for future consumption and that their food may be stolen if others are watching them burry it. The results of these studies found that the birds that cached in one tray in front of one competitior, they relocated their worms after the competitor was out of their sight. However, if there was a tray that was behind a barrier and out of the competitors view then they cached more worms and were less likely to re-cache later on.

Chimps have the ability to read social cues such as when there is a threat present, they can understand the emotional state of their neighbors. The harder part is understanding if they actual take the next steps of assigning reasons for their neighbor’s state. In the studies that have been done so far on chimpanzees and the possibility of possessing ToM, they have performed moderately well. They understand how to properly sneak up on another but they cannot predict the actions of one on that the other believes. Chimps show altruistic tendencies such as mourning the loss of a neighbor which adds to the fact they do possess elements of ToM. Sadly there is just not enough evidence to completely prove that they do in fact, possess ToM.






Hi, my names Stephanie Ryder and I am a junior at Keene State. I am majoring in Elementary Education and Math.

2 thoughts on “Do Chimpanzees Have Theory of Mind?

  1. Nice post, really interesting topic in my opinion. Personally, I believe chimps do have a sense in theory of mind. As you’ve shared above there has been numerous tests that prove chimps think sophistically enough to where they react to others emotions. However, it’s difficult to really prove they understand ToM in all of its elements. If they had a verbal form of communication that we could understand, we would be one step closer to finding out the truth. Until then or until we discover better testing methods we can’t officially declare that they share the same theory of mind as humans do.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really liked the example you gave about how chimps mourn the loss of their dead. This is a seemingly human-like tendency and I thought it was interesting how you made the ToM connection with that example. It may not be proven one way or another if they possess ToM or not but they sure show many similarities to humans. Excellent post! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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