The evolution of transitive inference: Chimpanzees’ performance with social and nonsocial stimuli

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A number of theories posit various social and nonsocial factors as the central drivers of the evolution of intelligence. Cognitive skills, such as transitive interference, that have important implications in both the social and nonsocial domains can help identify drivers of cognitive evolution. Transitive inference is an inferential reasoning skill, which allows individuals to deduce unknown relationships from known ones. Due to its importance in both social and nonsocial contexts it can provide a powerful test of the driving forces behind primate cognitive evolution. We compared chimpanzees’ (Pan troglodytes) performance on social and nonsocial versions of a transitive inference task in order to assess whether they are better adapted to apply transitive reasoning to social or nonsocial stimuli. Our preliminary findings provide partial support for the hypotheses that chimpanzees are better adapted to use transitive inference in the social and nonsocial domains. However, our statistical abilities are limited by a small sample size and several confounding factors regarding the age and sex of our subjects, which limit firm conclusions. Further research (outlined in our methods) will allow us to more accurately asses the factors associated with the evolution of transitive inference skills in chimpanzees.





Kaiser, Leah (2014). The evolution of transitive inference: Chimpanzees’ performance with social and nonsocial stimuli. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from

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