Chimpanzee 'folk physics': Bringing failures into focus

  • Seed A
  • Seddon E
  • Greene B
 et al. 
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Differences between individuals are the raw material from which theories of the evolution and ontogeny of cognition are built. For example, when 4-year-old children pass a test requiring them to communicate the content of another's falsely held belief, while 3-year-olds fail, we know that something must change over the course of the third year of life. In the search for what develops or evolves, the typical route is to probe the extents and limits of successful individuals' ability. Another is to focus on those that failed, and find out what difference or lack prevented them from passing the task. Recent research in developmental psychology has harnessed individual differences to illuminate the cognitive mechanisms that emerge to enable success. We apply this approach to explaining some of the failures made by chimpanzees when using tools to solve problems. Twelve of 16 chimpanzees failed to discriminate between a complete and a broken tool when, after being set down, the ends of the broken one were aligned in front of them. There was a correlation between performance on this aligned task and another in which after being set down, the centre of both tools was covered, suggesting that the limiting factor was not the representation of connection, but memory or attention. Some chimpanzees that passed the aligned task passed a task in which the location of the broken tool was never visible but had to be inferred.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Chimpanzees
  • Executive function
  • Representation
  • Tool-use

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  • Amanda Seed

  • Eleanor Seddon

  • Bláthnaid Greene

  • Josep Call

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