Focusing and shifting attention in human children (Homo sapiens) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)

Esther Herrmann, Michael Tomasello

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Humans often must coordinate co-occurring activities, and their flexible skills for doing so would seem to be uniquely powerful. In 2 studies, we compared 4- and 5-year-old children and one of humans’ nearest relatives, chimpanzees, in their ability to focus and shift their attention when necessary. The results of Study 1 showed that 4-year-old children and chimpanzees were very similar in their ability to monitor two identical devices and to sequentially switch between the two to collect a reward, and that they were less successful at doing so than 5-year-old children. In Study 2, which required subjects to alternate between two different tasks, one of which had rewards continuously available whereas the other one only occasionally released rewards, no species differences were found. These results suggest that chimpanzees and human children share some fundamental attentional control skills, but that such abilities continue to develop during human ontogeny, resulting in the uniquely human capacity to succeed at complex multitasking.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)268-274
JournalJournal of Comparative Psychology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2015

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