We read other peoples mind’s every day, guessing their thoughts, emotions and intentions each time we talk to them. This understanding of other people and the ability to attribute mental states is called the “theory of mind”. The theory explains how you attribute thoughts, desires, and intentions to others to predict or explain their actions, and to posit their intentions.
understanding of other people and the ability to attribute mental states is called the “theory of mind”
Previously this “theory of mind” was thought to be limited to humans, but recent studies have shown that several species of Great Ape (Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Bonobos and Orangutans) possess this interesting ability.
A study last year exposed Apes to videos of actors being shown objects in alternating locations. When the pattern was altered and the object appeared in a different location, the Apes looked to where the actor in the video would expect to see the object, rather than towards its true location. This suggests that they were aware that others could hold “false beliefs”. It could, however, just be that the Apes were predicting that the actor would go to the last place he looked, without the understanding of his beliefs.
A recent experiment has provided much more conclusive evidence.
In this 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 can then decide to open either box.
When A remains in the room they were equally likely to unlock either box. However, when A was not there the Apes unlocked the box containing the object 77% of times. This suggests that Apes recognised the goals of person A and the fact that they are acting under “false beliefs”. Their performance in this test closely matches the behaviour of a 16-month-old baby.
Apes apply their understanding of others’ beliefs when deciding how to behave
In a second test, A gives the object to B, then leaves the room while B puts the object in one of the boxes. In this case the Apes chose to unlock each box equally often, perhaps because it was less clear what the person’s intention was.
Because the Apes behave differently in each of the two scenarios, it shows they have some mental representation of what the other person believes rather than just thinking that person doesn’t know where the object is.
This show Apes apply their understanding of others’ beliefs when deciding how to behave in social interactions.