The mismeasure of ape social cognition

David Leavens, Kim Bard, William D. Hopkins

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In his classic analysis, The Mismeasure of Man, Gould (1981) demolished the idea that intelligence was an inherent, genetic trait of different human groups by emphasizing, among other things, (a) its sensitivity to environmental input, (b) the incommensurate pre-test preparation of different human groups, and (c) the inadequacy of the testing contexts, in many cases. According to Gould, the root cause of these oversights was confirmation bias by psychometricians, an unwarranted commitment to the idea that intelligence was a fixed, immutable quality of people. By virtue of a similar, systemic interpretive bias, in the last two decades, numerous contemporary researchers in comparative psychology have claimed human superiority over apes in social intelligence, based on two-group comparisons between postindustrial, Western Europeans and captive apes, where the apes have been isolated from European styles of social interaction, and tested with radically different procedures. Moreover, direct comparisons of humans with apes suffer from pervasive lapses in argumentation: Research designs in wide contemporary use are inherently mute about the underlying psychological causes of overt behavior. Here we analyze these problems and offer a more fruitful approach to the comparative study of social intelligence, which focuses on specific individual learning histories in specific ecological circumstances.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)487-504
Number of pages18
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number4
Early online date4 Aug 2017
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019


  • social cognition
  • mental causality
  • comparative methods
  • species comparisons


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