Flexible gaze-following in rhesus monkeys


Humans are characterized by complex social cognitive abilities that emerge early in development. Comparative studies of nonhuman primates can illuminate the evolutionary history of these social capacities. We examined the cognitive skills that rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) use to follow gaze, a foundational skill in human social development. While rhesus monkeys can make inferences about others’ gaze when competing, it is unclear how they think about gaze information in other contexts. In study 1, monkeys (n = 64) observed a demonstrator look upwards either in a barrier condition where a box was overhead, so that monkeys could not see the target of her gaze, or a no barrier condition where nothing blocked her view. In study 2, monkeys (n = 59) could approach to observe the target of the demonstrator’s gaze when the demonstrator looked behind a barrier on the ground or, in the no barrier condition, behind a window frame in the same location. Monkeys were more likely to directly look up in study 1 if they could initially see the location where the demonstrator was looking, but they did not preferentially reorient their bodies to observe the out-of-view location when they could not see that location. In study 2, monkeys did preferentially reorient, but at low rates. This indicates that rhesus monkeys can use social cognitive processes outside of competitive contexts to model what others can or cannot see, but may not be especially motivated to see what others look at in non-competitive contexts, as they reorient infrequently or in an inconsistent fashion. These similarities and differences between gaze-following in monkeys and children can help to illuminate the evolution of human social cognition.

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We thank Megan Cole, Francesca De Petrillo, Hayoung Chang, Megan Mulhinch, and Yijia Zheng for assistance with data collection and coding; Thore Bergman for helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript; and CSCAR at the University of Michigan for statistical advice. The authors are grateful to the Cayo Santiago Field Station and staff including Angelina Ruiz Lambides, Nahiri Rivera Barreto, Giselle Caraballo Cruz, and Bianca Giura for their research support.


This work was supported by a National Center for Research Resources CM-5-P40RR003640-13 award to the Caribbean Primate Research Center and the University of Puerto Rico, and an Office of Research Infrastructure Programs (ORIP) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through Grant Number 5P40OD012217 to the Caribbean Primate Research Center and the University of Puerto Rico. This research was supported in part by a Human Evolutionary Biology Early Training and Research Support Grant from Harvard University to RB. AR was supported by a Sloan Foundation fellowship.

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Correspondence to Rosemary Bettle.

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All non-invasive behavioral tests were approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) for the University of Puerto Rico Medical Sciences Campus (protocol #A140116), and adhered to site guidelines for animal research.

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Bettle, R., Rosati, A.G. Flexible gaze-following in rhesus monkeys. Anim Cogn 22, 673–686 (2019).

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  • Social development
  • Gaze-following
  • Theory of mind
  • Competition
  • Primates
  • Comparative cognition