Chimpanzee problem-solving: contrasting the use of causal and arbitrary cues

Daniel Hanus*, Josep Call

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Humans are able to benefit from a causally structured problem-solving context rather than arbitrarily structured situations. In order to better understand nonhuman causal cognition, it is therefore important to isolate crucial factors that might differentiate between events that follow a purely spatial and temporal contingency and those that hold a "true" causal relationship. In the first of two experiments, chimpanzee subjects were required to detect a bottle containing juice from five opaque bottles of equal shape and size. In the causal condition, the juice bottle looked identical to the other four bottles, only it was much heavier than the others. In the arbitrary condition, the weight of all five bottles was identical, but the juice bottle was color-marked differently. Since bottle opening was made difficult (and therefore costly), the question was whether subject's manipulative behavior would be random or somehow influenced by the nature of the provided information. Our results show that subjects detected and opened the juice bottle significantly faster when weight was the discriminating feature (causal condition) compared to situations in which the discrimination was necessarily based on a color-cue (arbitrary condition). Experiment 2 ruled out the possibility of a general learning bias toward tactile rather than visual information in chimpanzees. When tested in a simple exchange paradigm that prevented any use of causal information, no predominance of a tactile cue (weight) over a visual cue (color) could be found. Further-more-and in contrast to the causal condition in Experiment 1-no learning occurred during the course of Experiment 2, neither in the weight nor in the color condition. We therefore conclude that chimpanzees can more easily determine the content of an object based on its causal properties compared to situations in which the only available information is a pure arbitrary regularity. This supports the view that chimpanzees' causal cognition does not rely on mere perceptual information but also on structural abstraction about their physical environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)871-878
Number of pages8
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2011


  • Problem-solving
  • Causal cognition
  • Chimpanzees
  • Arbitrary cues
  • Causal cues
  • APES


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