Younger apes and human children plan their moves in a maze task

Christoph Johannes Voelter, Josep Call

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Planning defined as the predetermination of a sequence of actions towards some goal is crucial for complex problem solving. To shed light on the evolution of executive functions, we investigated the ontogenetic and phylogenetic origins of planning. Therefore, we presented all four great apes species (N = 12) as well as 4- and 5-year-old human preschoolers (N = 24) with a vertical maze task. To gain a reward placed on the uppermost level of the maze, subjects had to move the reward to the bottom through open gaps situated at each level of the maze. In total, there were ten gaps located over three of the maze's levels, and free passage through these gaps could be flexibly blocked using multiple traps. Due to the decision tree design of the maze, the subjects had to plan their actions depending on the trap configuration up to two steps ahead to successfully retrieve the reward. We found that (1) our measure of planning was negatively correlated with age in nonhuman apes, (2) younger apes as well as 5-year-old children planned their moves up to two steps ahead whereas 4-year-olds were limited to plan one step ahead, and (3) similar performance but different underlying limitations between apes and children. Namely, while all species of nonhuman apes were limited by a lack of motor control, human children exhibited a shortage in shifting their attention across a sequence of subgoals. (C) 2013 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)186-203
Number of pages18
Issue number2
Early online date6 Dec 2013
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2014


  • Primates
  • Planning
  • Problem solving
  • Executive functions
  • Aging
  • Inhibitory control
  • Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)
  • Short-term-memory
  • Great Apes
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Frontal-lobe
  • Cognitive-development
  • Capuchin monkeys
  • Pongo-Pygmaeus
  • Working-memory


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