By Melissa Chan
April 6, 2017

Great apes may be able to tell when a human makes a mistake, a new study has found.

Chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans have the ability to understand when people hold false beliefs and can help correct them in certain scenarios, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Plos One. Researchers say it’s a sign of advanced human social cognition, which they previously thought great apes lacked.

“Finding evidence of belief-tracking in great apes was kind of a surprise to all of us,” lead researcher David Buttelmann told CBC News.

Primates participating in the study were each individually tested in a room at the Leipzig Zoo in Germany, where they were put in front of two boxes. An experimenter would place an object inside one box and leave the room. Another experimenter would enter the room, move the object into the other box and exit. When the first experimenter returned and tried retrieving the object from the first box, the ape would help it open the second box, which it knew the object had been transferred to.

However, most apes in the study did not help the first experimenter open the second box if the first experimenter was still in the room to see the second experimenter move the item.

The findings show the great apes understood when the first experimenter still thought the item was where he or she last left it. The animals knew the human had a false belief about reality, according to researchers.

“Great apes thus may possess at least some basic understanding that an agent’s actions are based on her beliefs about reality. Hence, such understanding might not be the exclusive province of the human species,” the study says.

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