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Do apes know that they could be wrong?


When confronted with uncertain or incomplete information in decision-making situations, monkeys and apes opt for either escaping the situation or seeking additional information. These responses have been interpreted as evidence of metacognitive abilities. However, this interpretation has been challenged. On the one hand, studies using the information-seeking paradigm have been criticized because subjects may simply engage in a search for information routine (e.g., search until spot the reward) without any metacognitive involvement. On the other hand, studies using the escape response paradigm have been criticized because subjects may not recognize their own state of uncertainty but have learned to use the escape response in the presence of certain stimuli configurations that create uncertainty. The current study attempted to address these two criticisms by presenting great apes (seven gorillas, eight chimpanzees, four bonobos, seven orangutans) with a seeking information task whose basic procedure consisted of presenting two hollow tubes, baiting one of them and letting subjects choose. Conditions varied depending on whether subjects had visual access to the baiting, the cost associated with seeking information, the time interval between baiting and choosing, the food quality and the additional information offered regarding the food’s location. Although subjects showed a high retrieval accuracy when they had witnessed the baiting, they were more likely to check inside the tube before choosing when high stakes were involved (Experiment 3) or after a longer period of time had elapsed between the baiting and the retrieval of the reward (Experiment 2). In contrast, providing subjects with indirect auditory information about the food’s location or increasing the cost of checking reduced checking before choosing (Experiment 1). Taken together, these findings suggest that subjects knew that they could be wrong when choosing.

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Correspondence to Josep Call.

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Call, J. Do apes know that they could be wrong?. Anim Cogn 13, 689–700 (2010).

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  • Metacognition
  • Seeking information paradigm
  • Metamemory
  • Primates