Chimpanzees consider freedom of choice in their evaluation of social action

Jan M. Engelmann, Esther Herrmann, Marina Proft, Stefanie Keupp, Yarrow Dunham, Hannes Rakoczy

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Judgements of wrongdoing in humans often hinge upon an assessment of whether a perpetrator acted out of free choice: whether they had more than one option. The classic inhibitors of free choice are constraint (e.g. having your hands tied together) and ignorance (e.g. being unaware that an alternative exists). Here, across two studies, we investigate whether chimpanzees consider these factors in their evaluation of social action. Chimpanzees interacted with a human experimenter who handed them a non-preferred item of food, either because they were physically constrained from accessing the preferred item (Experiment 1) or because they were ignorant of the availability of the preferred item (Experiment 2). We found that chimpanzees were more likely to accept the non-preferred food and showed fewer negative emotional responses when the experimenter was physically constrained compared with when they had free choice. We did not, however, find an effect of ignorance on chimpanzee's evaluation. Freedom of choice factors into chimpanzees' evaluation of how they are treated, but it is unclear whether mental state reasoning is involved in this assessment.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20210502
Number of pages6
JournalBiology Letters
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 23 Feb 2022


  • freedom of choice
  • social evaluation
  • theory of mind
  • chimpanzees


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