Chimpanzees and children

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Evidence that chimpanzees rely on role models more than children do has been published today.

Professor Andrew Whiten and Dr Lydia Hopper of the University of St Andrews set out to determine whether a species emulates, imitates or displays a simpler form of observational learning.  They found that chimpanzees are heavily dependent on fellow chimps as role models.

Dr Lydia Hopper from the Scottish Primate Research Group at the School of Psychology explained, “Numerous local traditions have been attributed to wild chimpanzees, but the social learning processes responsible remain unknown.  We studied this in captive chimpanzees, comparing them with children.

“Some watched a companion operate a screen to gain food, others saw only ‘ghost’ scenarios in which the screen moved by itself, either with another individual present or not.

“This provided the first evidence that chimpanzees, like children, can learn from results of actions alone if the task is sufficiently simple.

“However unlike children, over time the chimpanzees conformed to what they saw only if it was repeated by a live group-mate.

“These results may have implications for the cultural transmission of behaviour patterns.”

Recently, there has been much debate amongst scientists about whether communities of chimpanzees copy behaviour from each other or work out how to carry out tasks themselves.

By analysing the responses of the chimpanzees and children, the paper suggests that whilst the apes can and will learn from the physical results of actions in simple scenarios, they are more heavily dependent upon fellow chimps to act as role models in more complex situations.

Dr Hopper studied 40 chimpanzees at the Department of Veterinary Sciences at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, USA, and 40 children aged between three and four at nursery schools within Fife.



Hopper, L. M., Lambeth, S. P., Schapiro, S. J.  & Whiten, A. (2008). Observational learning in chimpanzees and children studied through ‘ghost’ conditions. Proc. R. Soc. Lond. ‘B’, can be viewed at

It can also be reached via St Andrews Research Expertise database at –

Dr Lydia Hopper is available on [email protected]
Professor Andrew Whiten is available on 0781 736 8637.


View footage of a related study on the NOVA website –


Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona Armstrong, Press Officer on 01334 462530 / 462529, email [email protected]
Ref:  Chimps and Children 090108
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