Monkeys demonstrate self-awareness via computer game

Animal researchers used to assume that humans were the only animals that are aware of their own thought process. A new study in macaques by US based scientists demonstrates that some monkeys also have self-awareness.

According to the study was conducted by Professor John David Smith of the Department of Psychology at the State University of New York and Georgia State University’s Dr. Michael Beran. The results were presented at the Advancing Science Serving Society (AAAS) conference in Washington DC, in a session organized by the European Science Foundation.


The macaques were trained to figure out if the density of a small box on a computer monitor was either sparse (S) or dense (D). If they took the joystick to move the box to the correct letter a treat was given and if they made the incorrect choice they received no treat and the game paused. They could choose to avoid the pause in the game if instead they moved the box to a third choice, a question mark, if they were uncertain of the density of the box.

The study showed that the monkeys had a preference for passing and moving on by opting for the question mark if they weren’t sure of the right answer. This choice bypassed the pause and gave them the ability to access the next treat faster but did not result in a treat.

Studies in the past have shown that humans also choose the pass option if they are presented with similar mental tasks they find too difficult.

The results of the study show that the macaques, which are Old World monkeys, understood when they were uncertain and therefore likely to make an incorrect choice and that they were also aware that they did not know the answer. When capuchins, which are New World monkeys, were presented with the same task they did not choose the pass option.

Professor Smith said it is not known if this kind of cognitive ability came out only once and only in the Old World primates, the group which leads to humans and apes, but that the ability of humans to notice our own thinking was “central to every aspect of our comprehension and learning.”