The development and flexibility of gaze alternations in bonobos and chimpanzees

Lucca, K., MacLean, E.L., Hare, B. (2018). The development and flexibility of gaze alternations in bonobos and chimpanzees. Developmental Science, e12598. doi: 10.1111/desc.12598 [PDF]

Infants’ early gaze alternations are one of their first steps towards a sophisticated understanding of the social world. This ability, to gaze alternate between an object of interest and another individual also attending to that object, has been considered foundational to the development of many complex social-cognitive abilities, such as theory of mind and language. However, to understand the evolution of these abilities, it is important to identify whether and how gaze alternations are used and develop in our closest living relatives, bonobos (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Here, we evaluated the development of gaze alternations in a large, developmental sample of bonobos (N = 17) and chimpanzees (N = 35). To assess the flexibility of ape gaze alternations, we tested whether they produced gaze alternations when requesting food from a human who was either visually attentive or visually inattentive. Similarly to human infants, both bonobos and chimpanzees produced gaze alternations, and did so more frequently when a human communicative partner was visually attentive. However, unlike humans, who gaze alternate frequently from early in development, chimpanzees did not begin to gaze alternate frequently until adulthood. Bonobos produced very few gaze alternations, regardless of age. Thus, it may be the early emergence of gaze alternations, as opposed gaze alternations themselves, that is derived in the human lineage. The distinctively early emergence of gaze alternations in humans may be a critical underpinning for the development of complex human social-cognitive abilities.