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Do great apes use emotional expressions to infer desires?


Address for correspondence: David Buttelmann, Department of Developmental & Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, D-04103 Leipzig, Germany; e-mail:


Although apes understand others’ goals and perceptions, little is known about their understanding of others’ emotional expressions. We conducted three studies following the general paradigm of Repacholi and colleagues (1997, 1998). In Study 1, a human reacted emotionally to the hidden contents of two boxes, after which the ape was allowed to choose one of the boxes. Apes distinguished between two of the expressed emotions (happiness and disgust) by choosing appropriately. In Studies 2 and 3, a human reacted either positively or negatively to the hidden contents of two containers; then the ape saw him eating something. When given a choice, apes correctly chose the container to which the human had reacted negatively, based on the inference that the human had just eaten the food to which he had reacted positively – and so the other container still had food left in it. These findings suggest that great apes understand both the directedness and the valence of some human emotional expressions, and can use this understanding to infer desires.