Primate causal understanding in the physical and psychological domains

Journal Article (Journal Article)

Evidence for primates' understanding of causality is presented and discussed. Understanding causality requires the organism to understand not just that two events are associated with one another in space and time, but also that there is some 'mediating force' that binds the two events to one another which may be used to predict or control those events (e.g. a physical force such as gravity or a psychological force such as an intention). In the physical domain, studies of tool use indicate that capuchin monkeys do not have a causal understanding of the functioning of tools in terms of the physical forces involved, but rather they learn to associate aspects of their own behavior with the results it produces. Apes show some possible signs of understanding the causal relations involved in tool use in the sense that they may employ various forms of foresight in approaching novel tasks, perhaps involving an understanding of physical forces-although not to the extent of human children. In the psychological domain, nonhuman primates understand conspecifics as animate beings that generate their own behavior and, thus, they appreciate that to manipulate conspecifics communicative signals, and not physical activities, are required. However, there is very little evidence that nonhuman primates of any species understand others as psychological beings with intentions and other psychological states that mediate their behavioral interactions with the world-as human children begin to do sometime during their second year of life. More research, using a wider range of problem-solving situations, is needed if we are to become more precise in our understanding of how primates understand the causal structure of the world around them.

Full Text

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Visalberghi, E; Tomasello, M

Published Date

  • February 1, 1998

Published In

Volume / Issue

  • 42 / 2-3

Start / End Page

  • 189 - 203

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

  • 0376-6357

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

  • 10.1016/S0376-6357(97)00076-4

Citation Source

  • Scopus