Vol 7, Issue 3, August 2020

Do Nonhumans Seek Explanations?


Völter, C.J., Lambert, M.L. & Huber, L. (2020). Do nonhumans seek explanations? Animal Behavior and Cognition, 7(3), 445-451. doi: https://doi.org/10.26451/abc.


From an early age, children explore their environment in a way suggesting that they reason about causal variables and seek causal explanations. Indeed, following extensive studies of problem-solving abilities in chimpanzees, Povinelli (Folk Physics for Apes, Oxford University Press, 2000) proposed that this ability to reason about unobservable variables is unique to humans. Following on from this, Povinelli and Dunphy-Lelii (Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 55(2), 187–195, 2001) addressed the question whether chimpanzees would explore objects with the aim of elucidating unobservable and surprising object properties. Chimpanzees, unlike preschool children, did not show increased object exploration following a change in the unobservable properties of an object. We critically discuss these findings and argue that more research using a greater variety of methods and with a larger number of species is required to support the hypothesis that only humans engage in explanation seeking. We conclude by highlighting avenues for future research based on developmental and comparative research aimed at object exploration and information seeking conducted since the original investigation by Povinelli and Dunphy-Lelii.


Explanation seeking, Hypothesis testing, Chimpanzees, Causal cognition, Folk physics, Object exploration