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J Comp Psychol. 1998 Jun;112(2):192-206.

Distinguishing intentional from accidental actions in orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus), chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), and human children (Homo sapiens).

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Emory University, USA.


This study investigates the understanding of others' intentions in 2- and 3-year-old children, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), and orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus). During training, subjects learned to use a discriminative cue to select a baited box. During testing, the experimenter placed a marker on top of the baited box to inform the subject of the reward's location. However, the experimenter also accidentally dropped the marker on top of an unbaited box, so that during any given trial the experimenter marked 2 boxes, 1 intentionally and 1 accidentally. All 3 species preferentially selected the box the experimenter had marked intentionally (especially during the initial trials), with 3-year-old children presenting the most robust results. These findings suggest that subjects understood something about the experimenter's intentions. The authors speculate that understanding of others' intentions may precede the understanding of others' beliefs both at the ontogenetic and phylogenetic levels.

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