Theory of Mind in Relation to Non-Human Animals

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Although many species have behaved as if they have a ‘theory of mind’ in various behavioral tasks, it is still an extensive debate as to whether they can attribute mental states to others. This essay’s main aim is to explain the concept of theory of mind and describe the methods used to assess mind-reading abilities of non-human animals.

Theory of mind is referred to as the human ability to mindread. This term has been used in developmental psychology to explain that humans have theory of mind, which is when humans understand others and oneself as having mental states. Premack and Woodruff explained this term as “an individual has a theory of mind if he imputes mental states to himself and others” (Premack and Woodruff, 1978, p.515).

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David Premack and Guy Woodruff (1978) made a study to find out whether chimpanzees would show evidence of understanding human beings’ goals and intentions. They believed that if chimpanzees showed any evidence of this, it would mean that animals have a theory of mind. They used videos as a method of study by showing adult chimpanzees some videotapes of a human facing a variety of problems, mainly involving inaccessible food, and struggling. The videos included complex problems and some simple to solve. The clips were 30 seconds long and were paused 5 seconds before the end so that the chimpanzees would not see the solution to the problem. After the clip, chimpanzees were presented with 2 photographs, one of which showed the solution. At the end of the study, the chimpanzees were able to choose the correct photograph for almost all the problems. Therefore, Premack and Woodruff concluded that chimpanzees have a theory of mind because of the ability to make mental state attributions by understanding the goals and intentions of humans.

The ‘begging paradigm’ (Povinelli and Eddy, 1996) was a series of study carried out on chimpanzees’ understanding of visual perception. Chimpanzees were given the opportunity to beg from experimenters who could or could not see them. It was found that chimpanzees would gesture to the experimenter that could see them when he was turned towards them. However, they did not differentiate between experimenters with buckets on their shoulders over their heads, or with blindfolds over their eyes. Furthermore, subjects failed to differentiate between experimenters with their open or closed eyes. Povinelli and Eddy concluded that there is a little evidence that shows chimpanzees’ understanding of visual perception. Their studies showed that chimpanzees can respond to a few behavioral cues, such as whether someone can see them and is likely to feed them, but they do not understand ‘seeing’ as a mental state.

The ‘competitive paradigm’ (Hare et al., 2000) produced positive results for understanding of visual perception of chimpanzees. For this study, there were two conditions: in one, both subjects were presented the food, and on the other condition, the food was visible only to the subordinate of the two. The study’s aim was to find out whether the subordinate chimpanzee would consider if the dominant one could see the food. They concluded that the subordinate understood what the dominant saw and what it knew. Therefore, chimpanzees can understand perception.

False-belief tasks separate an individual’s belief from those of another person who has false knowledge of a situation, and are considered one of the most important indicators for assessing theory of mind. The ‘competitive paradigm’ was adapted to test if chimpanzees understand false beliefs. The subordinate chimpanzee approached the food more often if the dominant had not witnessed the baiting than if it had. However, the subordinate approached less often when the food was moved after the dominant saw the baiting than if the food was not moved, suggesting that the chimpanzee did not understand the dominant’s false belief of where the food was.

There are many methods which can be used for studies, and this has not been different with theory of mind on non-humans. There is a debate on whether it should be laboratory-based or natural settings. Nissani (2004) argued there are aspects to the study carried out by Povinelli and Eddy that made it artificial and unnatural. Such unnatural procedures are said to lack ecological validity. Nissani carried out a natural setting study on elephants and argued that the begging gesture was natural for the elephants, but not for the chimpanzees. Also, the chimpanzees were of young age which can influence on result, since earlier studies on children showed that the development of theory of mind ability emerges gradually. However, the competitive paradigm took place in a controlled laboratory setting, but was in a naturalistic context. This shows that it is not wrong to have a laboratory-based study as long as it has a natural aspect in order to maximize ecological validity.

In conclusion, there are many examples of studies, arguments and theories about animal minds and animals’ mental capabilities, and some of these have been pointed out in this essay. Some conclusions of these studies can be equivocal because it is a matter of the experimenters’ interpretation of the results. The studies mentioned above indicate that animals share similar experiences to those of humans, also indicate that hon-humans, including chimpanzees and elephants, experience a range of emotions. David Premack and Guy Woodruff showed evidence of problem-solving abilities in animals. Finally, there are studies which shows that animals may have some ability to understand others’ mental states, such as intentions, goals and perceptions.


  1. Hewson, C., Ramsden, P., and Turner, J. (2015). ‘Animal Minds’. In Turner, J., Hewson, C., Mahendran, K., and Stevens, P. (eds). Living Psychology: From the Everyday to the Extraordinary, Milton Keynes. The Open University.
  2. The Open University (2020). ‘Do Animals Have a Theory of Mind?’. DD210 Week 3 Study Guide: Animal Minds [Online].
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