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Orangutans modify facial displays depending on recipient attention

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Primate facial expressions are widely accepted as underpinned by reflexive emotional processes and not under voluntary control. In contrast, other modes of primate communication, especially gestures, are widely accepted as underpinned by intentional, goal-driven cognitive processes. One reason for this distinction is that production of primate gestures is often sensitive to the attentional state of the recipient, a phenomenon used as one of the key behavioural criteria for identifying intentionality in signal production. The reasoning is that modifying/producing a signal when a potential recipient is looking could demonstrate that the sender intends to communicate with them. Here, we show that the production of a primate facial expression can also be sensitive to the attention of the play partner. Using the orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) Facial Action Coding System (OrangFACS), we demonstrate that facial movements are more intense and more complex when recipient attention is directed towards the sender. Therefore, production of the playface is not an automated response to play (or simply a play behaviour itself) and is instead produced flexibly depending on the context. If sensitivity to attentional stance is a good indicator of intentionality, we must also conclude that the orangutan playface is intentionally produced. However, a number of alternative, lower level interpretations for flexible production of signals in response to the attention of another are discussed. As intentionality is a key feature of human language, claims of intentional communication in related primate species are powerful drivers in language evolution debates, and thus caution in identifying intentionality is important.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere827
JournalPeerJ
Volume3
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 19 Mar 2015

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