The Cognitive Implications of Intentional Communication: A Multifaceted Mirror

  • David A. LeavensEmail author
Part of the Interdisciplinary Evolution Research book series (IDER)


There is a central concern in contemporary cognitive science with the validity of the use of epistemic and intentional terms to interpret the communication patterns of non-human animals. Here I argue (a) that the human developmental transition to intentional communication is a well-described phenomenon, from an empirical standpoint; (b) that the behavioural patterns that characterise intentional communication in our own species are also well-described in the communication of our nearest living relatives, the great apes; (c) that the presence of the behavioural markers for intentional communication in non-human primates does not unambiguously implicate any particular one of a large number of often mutually contradictory hypothetical psychological process models; and (d) that intentional communication by young humans is also consistent with hypothetical process models that are, themselves, mutually contradictory. Intentional communication is a class of behaviour that is open to public, objective measurement. In contrast, the hypothetical cognitive processes supporting intentional communication in both human and non-human animals are not specified by the fact that intentional communication has occurred—they could not be, except when there is an unambiguous behavioural index of invisible psychological processes, which is a contradiction in terms. In this chapter, I will examine a number of contemporary scientific practices that purportedly reveal aspects of psychological processes underlying intentional communication and demonstrate the deficiencies of these protocols. In general, these methodological infelicities support a systematic, discipline-wide double standard of interpretation of the communication of animals and humans. I will conclude that there is no convincing evidence extant of different psychological processes in the intentional communication of apes and preverbal humans.


Social cognition Hominoidea Species comparisons Idols of the Theatre Great apes Intentional communication Experimental methods 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PsychologyUniversity of SussexFalmerUK

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