Do Chimpanzees Know What Others Can and Cannot Do? Reasoning About 'Capability'

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Much recent comparative work has been devoted to exploring what nonhuman primates understand about physical causality. However, few laboratory experiments have attempted to test what nonhumans understand about what physical acts others are capable of performing. We tested seven chimpanzees' ability to predict which of two human experimenters could deliver a tray containing a food reward. In the 'floor' condition, legs were required to push the tray toward the subject. In the 'lap' condition, arms were required to hand the tray to the subject. In Exp. 1, chimpanzees begged (by gesturing) to either an experimenter whose legs were not visible (LNV) or whose arms were not visible (ANV). Rather than flexibly altering their preferences between conditions, the chimpanzees preferred the ANV experimenter regardless of the task. In subsequent experiments, we manipulated various factors that might have controlled the chimpanzees' preferences, such as (a) distance between experimenter and subject (Experiment 2), (b) amount of occlusion of experimenters' body (Experiments 2 and 3), (c) contact with the food tray (Experiments 3 and 4) and (d) positioning of barriers that either impeded the movement of the limbs or not (Experiment 5). The chimpanzees' performance was best explained by attention to cues such as perceived proximity, contact, and maximal occlusion of body that although highly predictive in certain tasks, were irrelevant in others. When the discriminative role of such cues was eliminated, performance fell to chance levels, indicating that chimpanzees do not spontaneously (or after considerable training) use limb visibility as a cue to predict the ability of a human to perform particular physical tasks. Thus, the current findings suggest a possible failure of causal reasoning in the context of reasoning about the use of the limbs to perform physical acts.

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Animal Cognition





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