Abstract Knowledge in the Broken-String Problem: Evidence from Nonhuman Primates and Pre-Schoolers
There is still large controversy about whether abstract knowledge of physical problems is uniquely human. We presented 9 capuchin monkeys, 6 bonobos, 6 chimpanzees and 48 children with two versions of a broken-string problem. In the standard condition, participants had to choose between an intact and a broken string as means to a reward. In the critical condition, the functional parts of the strings were covered up and replaced by perceptually similar, but non-functional cues. Apes, monkeys and young children performed significantly better in the standard condition in which the cues played a functional role, indicating knowledge of the functional properties involved. Moreover, a control experiment with chimpanzees and young children ruled out that this difference in performance could be accounted for by differences of perceptual feedback in the two conditions. We suggest that, similar to humans, nonhuman primates partly rely on abstract concepts in physical problem-solving.