The goal of ape pointing, PLOS (2018)
Captive great apes regularly use pointing gestures in their interactions with humans. However, the precise function of this gesture is unknown. One possibility is that apes use pointing primarily to direct attention (as in “please look at that”); another is that they point mainly as an action request (such as “can you give that to me?”). We investigated these two possibilities here by examining how the looking behavior of recipients affects pointing in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus). Upon pointing to food, subjects were faced with a recipient who either looked at the indicated object (successful-look) or failed to look at the indicated object (failed-look). We predicted that, if apes point primarily to direct attention, subjects would spend more time pointing in the failed-look condition because the goal of their gesture had not been met. Alternatively, we expected that, if apes point primarily to request an object, subjects would not differ in their pointing behavior between the successful-look and failed-look conditions because these conditions differed only in the looking behavior of the recipient. We found that subjects did differ in their pointing behavior across the successful-look and failed-look conditions, but contrary to our prediction subjects spent more time pointing in the successful-look condition. These results suggest that apes are sensitive to the attentional states of gestural recipients, but their adjustments are aimed at multiple goals. We also found a greater number of individuals with a strong right-hand than left-hand preference for pointing.