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Curr Biol. 2007 Aug 7;17(15):1345-8.

Orangutans modify their gestural signaling according to their audience's comprehension.

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School of Psychology, University of St Andrews, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9JP, Scotland.


When people are not fully understood, they persist with attempts to communicate, elaborating their speech in order to better convey their meaning [1]. We investigated whether captive orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus and Pongo abelii) would use analogous communicative strategies in signaling to a human experimenter, and whether they could distinguish different degrees of misunderstanding. Orangutans' behavior varied according to how well they had apparently been understood. When their aims were not met, they persisted in communicative attempts. However, when the interlocutor appeared partially to understand their meaning, orangutans narrowed down their range of signals, focusing on gestures already used and repeating them frequently. In contrast, when completely misunderstood, orangutans elaborated their range of gestures, avoiding repetition of failed signals. It is therefore possible, from communicative signals alone, to determine how well an orangutan's intended goal has been met. This differentiation might function under natural conditions to allow an orangutan's intended goals to be understood more efficiently. In the absence of conventional labels, communicating the fact that an intention has been somewhat misunderstood is an important way to establish shared meaning.

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