Apes can see things from your perspective and help you out

Apr 6, 2017

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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2 comments on “Apes can see things from your perspective and help you out

  • Apes can see things from your perspective…

    Apes maybe can do that, but not the little guy in the picture with the fancy hairstyle… it’s a monkey, not an ape…

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  • Apparently monkeys can also “help out”!


    Police in northern India are searching lists of missing children to try to identify a girl believed to have been living with monkeys.

    The little girl, aged between eight and 10, was found a few weeks ago in a forest in Uttar Pradesh.

    Doctors said she could not communicate and displayed “monkey-like” traits.

    A senior police official told BBC Hindi she had been playing with a pack of monkeys and imitating their behaviour when police went to rescue her.

    The little girl was spotted by villagers in the Katarniaghat wildlife sanctuary, on the Indian border with Nepal.

    The police official, Suresh Yadav, said the monkeys attacked his squad when they arrived to take her away.

    Doctors said she was malnourished when she was brought in, with long hair and nails, and wounds on her body.

    She was also unable to communicate but would screech and initially walked on all fours.

    Her condition is said to be much better now, however, and in the long term she is expected to be handed over to child welfare agencies and other medical specialists to slowly reintroduce her to the world.

    The hospital’s chief medical officer, DK Singh, told BBC Hindi that although she was still in hospital, she would be transferred to the Lucknow Medical College once she had been given a clean bill of health so that she could get better medical care.

    Local District Magistrate Ajaydeep Singh has also visited the girl in hospital and has named her “Forest Durga”, a reference to a Hindu warrior goddess.

    Many in India are comparing the little girl to Mowgli, the character from Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book who was raised by wolves. It is not clear, however, how long the little girl has been living in the forest.

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