It has long been held that triadic interactions, or interactions between individuals that include shared perception and goals concerning an outside entity, require elaborate cognitive processes such as joint attention. With their connection to shared intentionality, triadic interactions have been a key topic of interest for developmental and evolutionary psychologists, notably when making comparisons between humans and other ape species. There is good evidence that chimpanzees and bonobos engage in triadic interactions; however, convincing evidence for orangutans are more limited and so far have been found only in the context of feeding. I engaged 11 wild-born sanctuary orangutans through the medium of a stick, allowing them to decide how to use the object and how to interact with me. The participating orangutans developed idiosyncratic ways of using the stick and engaging with me during the activity, and six of them alternated their gaze between the stick and me. When I interrupted the activity, the participating orangutans displayed more numerous and different behaviors than before the interruption to actively reengage me in the game. Much like human infants, they appeared more interested in the social interaction than in the stick. These findings confirm that triadic interactions occur in nonenculturated orangutans and are consistent with studies of other nonhuman great ape species, which also show triadic interactions, suggesting that joint attention and potentially shared intentionality may have an early origin in our evolutionary history.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Akhtar, N., & Gernsbacher, M. (2008). On privileging the role of gaze in infant social cognition. Child Development Perspectives, 2, 60–66.
Bard, K. A. (1992). Intentional behavior and intentional communication in young free-ranging orangutans. Child Development, 63, 1186–1197.
Bratman, M. (1992). Shared co-operative activity. Philosophical Review, 101, 327–341.
Buttelmann, D., Schütte, S., Carpenter, M., Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Great apes infer others’ goals based on context. Animal Cognition, 15(6), 1037–1053.
Call, J. (2009). Contrasting the social cognition of humans and nonhuman apes: the shared intentionality hypothesis. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1, 368–379.
Call, J., & Tomasello, M. (1994). Production and comprehension of referential pointing by orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 108(4), 307–317.
Carpenter, M., & Call, J. (2013). How joint is the joint attention of apes and human infants? In S. Terrace & J. Metcalfe (Eds.), Agency and joint attention. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cartmill, E. A., & Byrne, R. W. (2007). Orangutans modify their gestural signaling according to their audience’s comprehension. Current Biology, 17(15), 1345–1348.
D’Entremont, B., & Seamans, E. (2007). Do infants need social cognition to act socially? An alternative look at infant pointing. Child Development, 78(3), 723–728.
Gardner, R. A., & Gardner, B. T. (1969). Teaching sign language to a chimpanzee. Science, 165, 664–672.
Genty, E., Breuer, T., Hobaiter, C., & Byrne, R. W. (2009). Gestural communication of the gorilla (Gorilla gorilla): repertoire, intentionality and possible origins. Animal Cognition, 12, 527–546.
Gilbert, M. (1989). On social facts. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Gomez, J. (2004). Apes, monkeys, children and the growth of mind. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Gómez, J.-C. (2007). Pointing behaviors in apes and human infants: a balanced interpretation. Child Development, 78(3), 729–734.
Gómez, J.-C. (2010). The ontogeny of triadic cooperative interactions with humans in an infant gorilla. Interaction Studies, 11, 353–379.
Gruber, T., Singleton, I., & van Schaik, C. P. (2012). Sumatran orangutans differ in their cultural knowledge but not in their cognitive abilities. Current Biology, 22(23), 2231–2235.
Kellogg, W. N., & Kellogg, L. A. (1933). The ape and the child: A study of environmental influence upon early behavior. New York: Whittlesey House.
Leavens, D. A., & Bard, K. A. (2011). Environmental influences on joint attention in great apes: implications for human cognition. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 10(1), 9–31.
Leavens, D. A., & Racine, T. (2009). Joint attention in apes and humans: are humans unique? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 16, 240–267.
Leavens, D. A., Russell, J. M., & Hopkins, W. D. (2005). Intentionality as measured in the persistence and elaboration of communication by chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Child Development, 76(1), 291–306.
Lyn, H., Greenfield, P. M., Savage-Rumbaugh, S., Gillespie-Lynch, K., & Hopkins, W. D. (2011). Nonhuman primates do declare! A comparison of declarative symbol and gesture use in two children, two bonobos, and a chimpanzee. Language and Communication, 31, 63–74.
Maclean, E., & Hare, B. (2013). Spontaneous triadic engagement in bonobos (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Comparative Psychology, Advance online publication.
Miles, H. L. W. (1990). The cognitive foundations for reference in a signing orangutan. In S. T. Parker & K. R. Gibson (Eds.), “Language” and intelligence in monkeys and apes. Comparative developmental perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Moore, J. W., Teufel, C., Subramaniam, N., Davis, G., & Fletcher, P. C. (2013). Attribution of intentional causation influences the perception of observed movements: Behavioural evidence and neural correlates. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 23. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00023.
Mosteller, F., & Rourke, R. (1973). Sturdy statistics: Nonparametrics & order statistics. Reading: Addison-Wesley.
Patterson, F., & Linden, E. (1981). The education of Koko. New York: Owl.
Pika, S., & Zuberbühler, K. (2008). Social games between bonobos and humans: evidence for shared intentionality? American Journal of Primatology, 70(3), 207–210.
Rijksen, H. D. (1978). A field study on Sumatran orang utans (Pongo pygmaeus abelii Lesson 1827): Ecology, behaviour and conservation. Wageningen: H. Veenman Zonen BV.
Ross, H. S., & Lollis, S. P. (1987). Communication within infant social games. Developmental Psychology, 23, 241–248.
Russon, A., & Andrews, K. (2011). Orangutan pantomime: elaborating the message. Biology Letters, 7(4), 627–630.
Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S. (1986). Ape language. New York: Columbia University Press.
Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Rumbaugh, D. M., & McDonald, K. (1985). Language learning in two species of apes. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 9(4), 653–665.
Searle, J. (1995). The construction of social reality. New York: Free Press.
Tanner, J. E., & Byrne, R. W. (2010). Triadic and collaborative play by gorillas in social games with objects. Animal Cognition, 13, 591–607.
Tomasello, M. (1995). Joint attention as social cognition. In C. Moore & P. J. Dunham (Eds.), Joint attention: Its origins and role in development (pp. 103–130). Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Tomasello, M. (2008). Origins of human communication. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Tomasello, M., Call, J., & Gluckman, A. (1997). Comprehension of novel communicative signs by apes and human children. Child Development, 68(6), 1067–1080.
Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., Call, J., Behne, T., & Moll, H. (2005). Understanding and sharing intentions: the origins of cultural cognition. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 28(5), 675–735.
Tomasello, M., Carpenter, M., & Liszkowski, U. (2007). A new look at infant pointing. Child Development, 78(3), 705–722.
van Schaik, C. P., Ancrenaz, M., Borgen, G., Galdikas, B., Knott, C. D., Singleton, I., et al. (2003). Orangutan cultures and the evolution of material culture. Science, 299(5603), 102–105.
Warneken, F., Chen, F., & Tomasello, M. (2006). Cooperative activities in young children and chimpanzees. Child Development, 77, 640–663.
Warneken, F., Gräfenhain, M., & Tomasello, M. (2012). Collaborative partner or social tool? New evidence for young children’s understanding of joint intentions in collaborative activities. Developmental Science, 15, 54–61.
Wich, S. A., Sterck, E. H. M., & Utami, S. S. (1999). Are orangutan females as solitary as chimpanzee females? Folia Primatologica, 70, 23–28.
I thank the Indonesian Research and Technology Ministry (RISTEK) and all competent authorities for authorization to work in Indonesia, Ian Singleton and staff at Batu Mbelin, and Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (YEL) for assistance at Sibolangit. I thank the Universitas Nasional (UNAS) for their support and collaboration, particularly Pak Tatang Mitra Setia, Ibu Sri Suci Utami Atmoko, and Fitriah Basalamah. I thank the Fyssen Foundation and the A. H. Schultz Foundation for supporting my work in Indonesia and Zanna Clay, Cat Hobaiter, Maria van Noordwijk, and Eliane Müller for English proofing and comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. I thank Joanna Setchell and two anonymous reviewers for their comments.
Electronic supplementary material
Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.
(DOCX 178 kb)
About this article
Cite this article
Gruber, T. Wild-Born Orangutans (Pongo abelii) Engage in Triadic Interactions During Play. Int J Primatol 35, 411–424 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10764-013-9745-1
- Great apes
- Joint attention
- Object play
- Triadic interaction