Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Strategic Thinking

Social interactions may offer some of the strongest evidence of thinking. Survival depends on fulfilling needs, but how does a social animal fulfill the needs of finding resources, safety, and reproduction when other members of the group are all trying to do the same things? The answer is strategic thinking.

Dealing with other individuals in a group can be complicated. Who can be trusted? Who can help? Who is the leader? Many individuals means many social possibilities. When there are multiple ways to achieve a social goal, it is likely that strategic thinking is occurring. To get what you want, planning and flexibility are the keys, and that means thinking.

The Strategic Thinking area of Think Tank considers hierarchies and beneficial relationships. In particular, four different goals of social living are explored:

  • How to increase status in society
  • How to join forces against a rival
  • How to make up after a fight
  • How to find a mate

Obtaining these social goals requires answers to several questions:

  • Who is each individual (including age and sex) and to whom is each individual related?
  • Who is dominant in which situations and who is subordinate in which situations?
  • Where are resources located and who has access to them?
  • What is your place in the hierarchy?

Once these questions are answered, this information must be used to select a series of behaviors that meet a certain goal.

The Strategic Thinking touch-screen computer in the Society of Think Tank challenges visitors to reach four social goals important to chimpanzees. Visitors roleplay life in a chimpanzee group by touching photos that illustrate certain behaviors.

Deception and Innovation
as Evidence of Thinking

Deception and innovation are two activities that may provide evidence of thinking. Creating diversions, misinforming, and withholding information are all deceptive acts. In order to label a behavior "deceptive" or "innovative", a scientist must be very familiar with the normal range of behaviors for a particular species.

Deception is not always a behavior that shows thinking. For many species it is part of a feedback loop where a certain stimulus triggers the next activity. For instance, a plover will "fake" an injury to distract a predator away from its nest. This is deception, but all plovers use this same behavior and it is not learned. It shows little flexibility and is therefore not evidence of thinking.

There are good anecdotal examples of behaviors that appear to involve thinking-based deception. For instance, scientists have observed a baboon give a "false alarm." The baboon was being threatened and chased by other group members. To thwart the chasers, he stopped, stood up on his hind legs, and looked into the distance—the same behavior baboons exhibit when they see a predator or another baboon group. In this case there was no danger; the behavior got the other baboons to stop their chase and look in the same direction so the alarm-calling baboon could escape.

The formation of new behaviors (innovation) and the process by which they become traditions within a society may also be evidence of thinking. An example of innovation within a social group is when a wild female Japanese macaque began washing her food with water. The behavior was soon copied by others in the group. When infants began washing their food also, the behavior was passed on to a new generation and a tradition was born. Researching these types of innovation can take many years since new social traditions sometimes spread slowly through a population.