By Sam Wong
Our closest evolutionary relatives are quite the mind readers. And they can use that knowledge to help people figure things out when they are labouring under a misapprehension, according to the latest research.
The ability to attribute mental states to others, aka theory of mind, is sometimes considered unique to humans, but evidence is mounting that other animals have some capacity for it.
In a study last year, chimps, bonobos and orangutans watched videos of people behaving in different scenarios as cameras tracked their eye movements. The experiment found that the apes looked where an actor in the video would expect to see an object, rather than towards its true location, suggesting the animals were aware others could hold false beliefs.
But that experiment left open the possibility apes were simply predicting that the actor would go to the last place he’d seen the object, without understanding that he held a false belief. Now, David Buttelmann at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues tested 34 zoo chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans, in search of more conclusive evidence.
In their test, person A places an object into one of two boxes, then either remains in the room or leaves. Person B removes it, places it in the other box and locks both boxes. Then A tries to open the box where they left the object. The apes know how to unlock the boxes and can decide to open either one.
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