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Mirror self-recognition and its relationship to social cognition in chimpanzees

Abstract

Chimpanzees and humans are capable of recognizing their own reflection in mirrors. Little is understood about the selective pressures that led to this evolved trait and about the mechanisms that underlie it. Here, we investigated the hypothesis that mirror self-recognition in chimpanzees is the byproduct of a developed form of self-awareness that was naturally selected for its adaptive use in social cognitive behaviors. We present here the first direct attempt to assess the social cognition hypothesis by analyzing the association between mirror self-recognition in chimpanzees, as measured by a mirror-mark test, and their performance on a variety of social cognition tests. Consistent with the social cognition hypothesis, chimpanzees who showed evidence of mirror self-recognition in the mark test tended to perform significantly better on the social cognition tasks than those who failed the mark test. Additionally, the data as a whole fit the social cognition hypothesis better than the main competing hypothesis of mirror self-recognition in great apes, the secondary representation hypothesis. Our findings strongly suggest that the evolutionary origins of great apes’ and humans’ capacity to understand ourselves, as revealed by our capacity to recognize ourselves in mirrors, are intimately linked to our ability to understand others.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Given the relatively small sample sizes for the perspective taking tests, low power may have played a role in the negative results. As there were no similar previous studies from which to draw typical variances and effect sizes, it was not possible to do an a priori power analysis for these tests. However, we did calculate observed power using the characteristics of our data (sample size, mean, standard deviation, etc.) and running numerous Monte Carlo simulations with hypothetical similar samples. For the Kruskal–Wallis tests, in numerous simulations emulating the observed data, the power of the back-turned test never exceeded 0.50, and that of the over-the-shoulder test never exceeded 0.20. Both of these values are well short of the ideal power level of approximately 0.80. Observed power for the Spearman correlations was also quite low for the over-the-shoulder test at 0.113, but it was slightly higher for the significant positive correlation in the back-turned test at 0.559. This suggests that using larger sample sizes for similar tests in future research could aid in the detection of effects.

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Acknowledgements

We wish to thank Aaron Kozbelt for his statistical acumen and help with the post hoc power analyses.

Funding

This research was funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grant (435593-2013) to C. K., and National Institutes of Health (NIH) Grants (HD-60563 and NS-42867) to W. D. H.

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Correspondence to Carla Krachun.

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Krachun, C., Lurz, R., Mahovetz, L.M. et al. Mirror self-recognition and its relationship to social cognition in chimpanzees. Anim Cogn 22, 1171–1183 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-019-01309-7

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Keywords

  • Mirror self-recognition
  • Self-awareness
  • Social cognition
  • Secondary representation
  • Great apes
  • Chimpanzees