Flexible gaze following in rhesus monkeys

Bettle, R. & Rosati, A.G. (2019). Flexible gaze following in rhesus monkeys. Animal Cognition, 22: 673-686.

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Humans are characterized by complex social cognitive abilities that emerge early in development. Comparative studies of nonhuman primates can illuminate the evolutionary history of these social capacities. We examined the cognitive skills that rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) use to follow gaze, a foundational skill in human social development. While rhesus monkeys can make inferences about others’ gaze when competing, it is unclear how they think about gaze information in other contexts. In Study 1, monkeys (n = 64) observed a demonstrator look upwards either in a barrier condition where a box was overhead so that monkeys could not see the target of her gaze, or a no barrier condition where nothing blocked her view. In Study 2, monkeys (n = 59) could approach to observe the target of the demonstrator’s gaze when the demonstrator looked behind a barrier on the ground or, in the no barrier condition, behind a window frame in the same location. Monkeys were more likely to directly look up in Study 1 if they could initially see the location where the demonstrator was looking, but they did not preferentially reorient their bodies to observe the out-of-view location when they could not see that location. In Study 2, monkeys did preferentially reorient, but at low rates. This indicates that rhesus monkeys can use social cognitive processes outside of competitive contexts to model what others can or cannot see, but may not be especially motivated to see what others look at in non-competitive contexts, as they reorient infrequently or in an inconsistent fashion. These similarities and differences between gaze-following in monkeys and children can help illuminate the evolution of human social cognition.