Plain abstract adapted from Science comment by Virginia Morell, Humans aren’t the only great apes that can ‘read minds’

Great mind reading begins with chocolate. That is the basis for a classic experiment that tests whether children have theory of mind - i.e. the ability to attribute desires, intentions, and knowledge to others. The experiment goes as follows: kids see person 1 hide a chocolate bar in a box and leave the room, while a person 2 sneaks in and hides it elsewhere. Kids have to then guess where person 1 will look for the bar. If they guess “in the original box,” they pass the test, showing they understand what is going on in person 1’s mind—even when it does not match reality.

For years, only humans were thought to have this key cognitive skill of attributing “false belief,” which is believed to underlie deception, empathy, teaching, and perhaps even language. Using similar approaches, Krupenye et al. have discovered that three species of great apes—chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans— also know when someone holds a false belief. These results suggest that this skill likely can be traced back to the last common ancestor of great apes and humans. The apparent difference between great ape and human social cognition would thus lie, not in their basic capacity to “read” other minds, but elsewhere.


Original article: Great apes anticipate that other individuals will act according to false beliefs
Christopher Krupenye et al. Science, 2016