Reading wild minds: A computational assay of Theory of Mind sophistication across seven primate species

Abstract : Theory of Mind (ToM), i.e. the ability to understand others' mental states, endows humans with highly adaptive social skills such as teaching or deceiving. Candidate evolutionary explanations have been proposed for the unique sophistication of human ToM among primates. For example, the Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis states that the increasing complexity of social networks may have induced a demand for sophisticated ToM. This type of scenario ignores neurocognitive constraints that may eventually be crucial limiting factors for ToM evolution. In contradistinction, the cognitive scaffolding hypothesis asserts that a species' opportunity to develop sophisticated ToM is mostly determined by its general cognitive capacity (on which ToM is scaffolded). However, the actual relationships between ToM sophistication and either brain volume (a proxy for general cognitive capacity) or social group size (a proxy for social network complexity) are unclear. Here, we let 39 individuals sampled from seven non-human primate species (lemurs, macaques, mangabeys, orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees) engage in simple dyadic games against artificial ToM players (via a familiar human caregiver). Using computational analyses of primates' choice sequences, we found that the probability of exhibiting a ToM-compatible learning style is mainly driven by species' brain volume (rather than by social group size). Moreover, primates' social cognitive sophistication culminates in a precursor form of ToM, which still falls short of human fully-developed ToM abilities.
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Marie Devaine, Aurore San-Galli, Cinzia Trapanese, Giulia Bardino, Christelle Hano, et al.. Reading wild minds: A computational assay of Theory of Mind sophistication across seven primate species. PLoS Computational Biology, Public Library of Science, 2017, 13 (11), pp.e1005833. ⟨10.1371/journal.pcbi.1005833 ⟩. ⟨inserm-02148070⟩

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