How can I find what I want? Can children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys form abstract representations to guide their behavior in a sampling task?

Elisa Felsche, Christoph J. Völter, Esther Herrmann, Amanda M. Seed, Daphna Buchsbaum

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Abstract concepts are a powerful tool for making wide-ranging predictions in new situations based on little experience. Whereas looking-time studies suggest an early emergence of this ability in human infancy, other paradigms like the relational match to sample task often fail to detect abstract concepts until late preschool years. Similarly, non-human animals show difficulties and often succeed only after long training regimes. Given the considerable influence of slight task modifications, the conclusiveness of these findings for the development and phylogenetic distribution of abstract reasoning is debated. Here, we tested the abilities of 3 to 5-year-old children, chimpanzees, and capuchin monkeys in a unified and more ecologically valid task design based on the concept of “overhypotheses” (Goodman, 1955). Participants sampled high- and low-valued items from containers that either each offered items of uniform value or a mix of high- and low-valued items. In a test situation, participants should switch away earlier from a container offering low-valued items when they learned that, in general, items within a container are of the same type, but should stay longer if they formed the overhypothesis that containers bear a mix of types. We compared each species' performance to the predictions of a probabilistic hierarchical Bayesian model forming overhypotheses at a first and second level of abstraction, adapted to each species' reward preferences. Children and, to a more limited extent, chimpanzees demonstrated their sensitivity to abstract patterns in the evidence. In contrast, capuchin monkeys did not exhibit conclusive evidence for the ability of abstract knowledge formation.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105721
Number of pages20
Early online date22 Jan 2024
Publication statusEarly online - 22 Jan 2024


  • Overhypotheses
  • Abstraction
  • Generalization
  • Animal cognition
  • Computational modeling
  • Cognitive development

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