A novel test of planning ability : great apes can plan step-by-step but not in advance of action

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The ability to identify an appropriate sequence of actions or to consider alternative possible action sequences might be particularly useful during problem solving in the physical domain. We developed a new ‘paddle-box’ task to test the ability of different ape species to plan an appropriate sequence of physical actions (rotating paddles) to retrieve a reward from a goal location. The task had an adjustable difficulty level and was not dependent on species-specific behaviours (e.g. complex tool use). We investigated the planning abilities of captive orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) and bonobos (Pan paniscus) using the paddle-box. In experiment 1, subjects had to rotate one or two paddles before rotating the paddle with the reward on. Subjects of both species performed poorly, though orangutans rotated more non-food paddles, which may be related to their greater exploratory tendencies and bolder temperament compared with bonobos. In experiment 2 subjects could always rotate the paddle with the reward on first and still succeed, and most subjects of both species performed appropriate sequences of up to three paddle rotations to retrieve the reward. Poor performance in experiment 1 may have been related to subjects’ difficulty in inhibiting the prepotent response to act on the reward immediately.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)174-184
JournalBehavioural Processes
Early online date20 Oct 2013
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2013


  • Orangutan
  • Bonobo
  • Great ape
  • Planning
  • Inhibitory control
  • Problem solving
  • Cognition


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