Orientation toward humans predicts cognitive performance in orang-utans

Laura A. Damerius, Sofia I. F. Forss, Zaida K. Kosonen, Erik P. Willems, Judith M. Burkart, Josep Call, Birute M. Galdikas, Katja Liebal, Daniel B. Haun, Carel P. van Schaik

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Non-human animals sometimes show marked intraspecific variation in their cognitive abilities that may reflect variation in external inputs and experience during the developmental period. We examined variation in exploration and cognitive performance on a problem-solving task in a large sample of captive orang-utans (Pongo abelii & P. pygmaeus, N = 103) that had experienced different rearing and housing conditions during ontogeny, including human exposure. In addition to measuring exploration and cognitive performance, we also conducted a set of assays of the subjects’ psychological orientation, including reactions towards an unfamiliar human, summarized in the human orientation index (HOI), and towards novel food and objects. Using generalized linear mixed models we found that the HOI, rather than rearing background, best predicted both exploration and problem-solving success. Our results suggest a cascade of processes: human orientation was accompanied by a change in motivation towards problem-solving, expressed in reduced neophobia and increased exploration variety, which led to greater experience, and thus eventually to higher performance in the task. We propose that different experiences with humans caused individuals to vary in curiosity and understanding of the physical problem-solving task. We discuss the implications of these findings for comparative studies of cognitive ability.
Original languageEnglish
Article number40052
JournalScientific Reports
Publication statusPublished - 9 Jan 2017


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