Monkeys represent others' knowledge but not their beliefs

Dev Sci. 2011 Nov;14(6):1406-16. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2011.01085.x. Epub 2011 Aug 30.


The capacity to reason about the false beliefs of others is classically considered the benchmark for a fully fledged understanding of the mental lives of others. Although much is known about the developmental origins of our understanding of others' beliefs, we still know much less about the evolutionary origins of this capacity. Here, we examine whether non-human primates - specifically, rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) - share this developmental achievement. We presented macaques with a looking-time measure of false belief understanding, one that had recently been developed for use with 15-month-old human infants. Like human infants, monkeys look longer when a human experimenter fails to search in the correct location when she has accurate knowledge. In contrast to infants, however, monkeys appear to make no prediction about how a human experimenter will act when she has a false belief. Across three studies, macaques' pattern of results is consistent with the view that monkeys can represent the knowledge and ignorance of others, but not their beliefs. The capacity to represent beliefs may therefore be a unique hallmark of human cognition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Attention
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Macaca mulatta / physiology*
  • Theory of Mind / physiology*
  • Time Factors
  • Video Recording