How Could We Know Whether Nonhuman Primates Understand Others’ Internal Goals and Intentions? Solving Povinelli’s Problem


DOI: 10.1007/s13164-011-0068-x

Cite this article as:
Lurz, R.W. & Krachun, C. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2011) 2: 449. doi:10.1007/s13164-011-0068-x


A persistent methodological problem in primate social cognition research has been how to determine experimentally whether primates represent the internal goals of other agents or just the external goals of their actions. This is an instance of Daniel Povinelli’s more general challenge that no experimental protocol currently used in the field is capable of distinguishing genuine mindreading animals from their complementary behavior-reading counterparts. We argue that current methods used to test for internal-goal attribution in primates do not solve Povinelli’s problem. To overcome the problem, a new type of experimental approach is needed, one which is supported by an alternative theoretical account of animal mindreading, called the appearance-reality mindreading (ARM) theory. We provide an outline of the ARM theory and show how it can be used to design a novel way to test for internal-goal attribution in chimpanzees. Unlike protocols currently in use, the experimental design presented here has the power, in principle and in practice, to distinguish genuine mindreading chimpanzees from those who predict others’ behavior solely on the basis of behavioral/environmental cues. Our solution to Povinelli’s problem has important consequences for a similar debate in developmental psychology over when preverbal infants should be credited with the ability to attribute internal goals. If what we argue for here in the case of nonhuman primates is sound, then the clearest tests for internal-goal attribution in infants will be those that test for attributions of discrepant or ‘false’ perceptions.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyBrooklyn College - CUNYBrooklynUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyGrenfell Campus Memorial University of NewfoundlandCorner BrookCanada

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