Animal Cognition

, Volume 15, Issue 6, pp 1037–1053 | Cite as

Great apes infer others’ goals based on context

  • David Buttelmann
  • Sebastian Schütte
  • Malinda Carpenter
  • Josep Call
  • Michael Tomasello
Original Paper


In previous studies claiming to demonstrate that great apes understand the goals of others, the apes could potentially have been using subtle behavioral cues present during the test to succeed. In the current studies, we ruled out the use of such cues by making the behavior of the experimenter identical in the test phase of both the experimental and control conditions; the only difference was the preceding “context.” In the first study, apes interpreted a human’s ambiguous action as having the underlying goal of opening a box, or not, based on that human’s previous actions with similar boxes. In the second study, chimpanzees learned that when a human stood up she was going to go get food for them, but when a novel, unexpected event happened, they changed their expectation—presumably based on their understanding that this new event led the human to change her goal. These studies suggest that great apes do not need concurrent behavioral cues to infer others’ goals, but can do so from a variety of different types of cues—even cues displaced in time.


Intentional action Goal understanding Nonhuman primates Chimpanzees 



We thank Anke Bullinger, Johannes Grossmann, Yvonne Rekers, Katja Große, Franziska Zemke, Katharina Kirchhofer, Denise Göhler, and Alexandra Rosati for help conducting this study, and Roger Mundry for statistical assistance, and Thomas Bugnyar for helpful comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. Please address correspondence to David Buttelmann at

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Buttelmann
    • 1
    • 2
  • Sebastian Schütte
    • 2
  • Malinda Carpenter
    • 2
  • Josep Call
    • 2
  • Michael Tomasello
    • 2
  1. 1.Research Group “Kleinkindforschung in Thueringen”University of ErfurtErfurtGermany
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzigGermany

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