Chimpanzees know more than just monkey business

Breaking Ground

Chimpanzees aren’t just self-aware; they are metacognitive.

It seems we are always learning new evidence showing that chimpanzees, monkeys, and other apes are smarter than we previously imagined.Screen shot 2013-04-23 at 8.37.12 AM

Well, today is no different.

Using Georgia State’s Language Research Center (LRC), a team of researchers from Georgia State and the University at Buffalo discovered that chimpanzees show something called “metacognition”, or the ability to think about thinking.

The research team included Georgia State’s Michael Beran Ph.D, the associate director and senior research scientist of the LRC and Beran’s postdoctoral fellow, Bonnie Perdue Ph.D.

With the help of the University at Buffalo’s J. David Smith, the group had its findings published in the journal “Psychological Science” of the Association of Psychological Science.

In the simplest terms, metacognition refers to “thinking about thinking” or “knowing what one knows.”

Beran and Perdue explain that humans are often metacognitive, as Chimpanzees are. For example, when asked a question, an individual may respond thinking, “I know for a fact I know the answer to that,” or just the opposite.

Okay… maybe you don’t always respond exactly like that—but that is the process your brain goes through when it knows or does not know the answer to a question.

“This is a key issue in cognitive science, because we want to understand what capacities exist for monitoring and controlling how we search for and process information, especially when uncertainty or indecision arise,” said the research team.

The debate about metacognition in animals has been running on for decades. However, the new research suggests that chimpanzees can, in fact, think about thinking.

Testing, Testing…1…2…3

The experiment, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health, was conducted by placing food in a container and showing a Chimpanzee what kind of food was in the container about only half of the time.

“When the chimpanzee saw the item, he/she immediately named it by touching an icon on a board,” said Perdue.  “A second experimenter would then give the item to the chimpanzee only if the correct name was used.”

In contrast, when the chimpanzee had not seen the food item inside of the container, he/she would first go look inside of the container in the second location before trying to name it for the second experimenter.

This allowed researchers to assess whether the chimpanzee could think about their own state of mind.

In other words, if a chimp “knew they knew” the name of the item, he/she should point to its icon it immediately. If that animal “knew they did NOT know” the name of the item, they knew they had to look in the container before trying to name it.

A Link to Human Evolution?

Now that we know primates show signs of being metacognitive, this information may allow scientists to better understand the process of human evolution.

“As our closest living relative, research on chimpanzee cognition can certainly reveal a lot about the evolution of humans,” the team of researchers said. “These findings suggest that metacognitive abilities are not unique to humans, but that at least rudimentary forms of metacognition are present in other primates.”

Although this data is enlightening, Beran says we still have much to learn from chimpanzees.

“Even now, what we learn from chimpanzees in a laboratory setting teaches us so much about their psychology and about our own psychology, and it is critical that these kinds of studies will continue in the future,” Beran said.

A Breed of Their Own

This is a test that can only be conducted at the LRC, because it, “makes use of the language training of these chimpanzees, where they can name things,” said Beran. “Other chimpanzees cannot do this, and this makes the LRC chimps a special group—one that allows us to ask questions that cannot be asked anywhere else in the world.”

Similar studies have been conducted elsewhere with apes, but this experiment marks the first study conducted with the LRC’s chimpanzees.

Beran has worked with almost all primates, but also studied cognition in bears, elephants, and humans of all ages.

He feels that this comparative approach to cognition provides the most rewarding picture of evolution and the extent of cognition among animals.