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Like people, great apes may distinguish between true and false beliefs in others

Like people, great apes may distinguish between true and false beliefs in othersGreat apes help a person access an object when that person thinks they knowswhere it is but is mistaken, according to a study published April 5, 2017 in theopen-access journal PLOS ONE by David Buttelmann from Max Planck Institute forEvolutionary Anthropology, Germany, and colleagues.

Understanding when someone else has a false belief is a mark of advanced socialcognition in people, and researchers had believed that great apes lacked thiscapacity. Using a test that was developed for 1.5-year-old human infants,Buttelmann and colleagues evaluated understanding of others' beliefs in 34 greatapes (chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans) at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany.

The test involved a person placing an object in one of two boxes. Another personthen took this object out of this box, put it into another box, and locked bothboxes. For the true belief condition, the first person stayed in the room—so thisperson knew where the object was and thus had a true belief. For the falsebelief condition, however, the first person was out of the room during the switch —so while he thought he knew where the object was, he was mistaken and thus had afalse belief. In both conditions, the first person tried to open the box heoriginally had put his object in. The apes knew how to unlock the boxes, andcould decide which box to open for the first person during the test.

The researchers found that, like human infants, great apes were more likely tohelp the person find the object when he had a false belief about which box theobject was in. This suggests that great apes used their understanding of theperson's beliefs about reality to decide how to help him. If true, say theresearchers, great apes, like people, may have the capacity to "read" the mindsof others in social interactions.

"This study shows for the first time that great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, andorangutans) can use an understanding of false beliefs to help othersappropriately," says David Buttelmann.

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