Primates infer the intention of other primates similar to how humans do. “They expect other individuals to perform the most rational action that they can, given the environmental obstacles that they face.”
Chimps aren’t so dumb after all.
The scientists studied the behavioral response of over 120 primates, including cotton-top tamarins, rhesus macaques and chimpanzees. These species represent each of the three major groups of primates: New World monkeys, Old World monkeys and apes. All three species were tested in the same way, and the results showed the same responses among the different types.
In the second experiment, the researchers asked if the primates infer others’ goals under the expectation that other individuals will perform the most rational action allowed by the environmental obstacles. Again, the primates were presented with two potential food containers. In one scenario, an experimenter touched a container with his elbow when his hands were full, and in another scenario, touched a container with his elbow when his hands were empty. The primates looked for the food in the container indicated with the elbow more often when the experimenter’s hands were full. The primates considered, just as a human being would, that if someone’s hands are full then it is rational for them to use their elbow to indicate the container with food, whereas if their hands are empty it is not rational for them to use their elbow, because they could have used their unoccupied hand.
Developmental psychologists have long understood that young children are able to engage in this type of rational action perception, but scientists have not understood if this ability is unique to human beings, or shared with other animals. This study suggests that this ability evolved as long as 40 million years ago, with non-human primates.
Primates also have “mirror neurons” which give them greater ability to communicate and empathize.