Orangutan watches a magic trick

December 9, 2015 • 12:20 pm

by Matthew Cobb

This fantastic video shows a young orangutan being shown a ‘magic’ trick through the enclosure glass. Just watch:

The orangutan shows the same kind of response as you’d expect from a one year-old human infant. It knows that things don’t just disappear, so when something apparently does, the response is one of amazement and what looks like laughter.

D*gs can similarly be confused by a trick, although lacking the wit of an orangutan, they simply get cross:

You can guess what cats think of something as trivial as prestidigitation:

Learning the physical rules of the universe, in particular what the Swiss psychologist Piaget called the conservation of matter, is a tricky business. This neat video of a 4.5 year old child showing his understanding of the world is fascinating:

Finally, you may have noticed that the YouTube user who posted the orangutan video, Dan Zaleski, entitled it ‘Monkey sees a magic trick’. I sent the link to my daughter, who is studying Zoology, and she immediately replied ‘Monkey!’ Many of the commenters under the video have also complained that the orangutan is an ape, not a monkey, some of them not so nuanced (YouTube comments are not noted for their subtlety).

In fact, there’s a pedantic argument to be made on the basis of nested taxonomy that apes are indeed monkeys (see here and here). Whatever the pedantry (and I would not call an ape a monkey), the correct term  would surely have been ape, or even better, orangutan. That’s what was written on the poor animal’s cage.

h/t: @alisonatkin

50 thoughts on “Orangutan watches a magic trick

    1. My guess is that the science being done around the subject is more comprehensive than the videos. 🙂

      Still, you’re right from a science communication perspective; it would’ve been trivial to add an extra 20 seconds of video showing a control experiments, and that would’ve helped watchers understand science a lot better.

      1. How much science is being done around the subject? I find this subject fascinating. I remember watching something on NOVA or NatGeo perhaps about interspecies bonding and it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen on TV.

    2. From the perspective of its understanding, yes. Still interesting to see how much more human-like its reaction is than that of the cats, for example…

    3. That’s a great point. My scientific thinking was suspended by my engagement with Matthew’s frame; I just interpreted the orangutan’s response the way he described it. But had the video appeared without a caption and without the other videos, I might have arrived at a different understanding of the orang’s response.

      I wonder about the reach of empathy bias and its constraint on critical thought.

      1. I did wonder, watching it, whether the orang was picking up cues off the human(s) who were laughing at the trick.


  1. This post reminded me the research conducted by Brian Hare and others regarding dog cognition. His book The Genious of Dogs is a great summary of this research.

    Botton line is that: Dogs are very bad at understanding and resolving physical problems, but they’re much better than wolves, chimps at understanding human communication intention, such as gaze or pointing gesture. There are several simple, but clever experiments illustrating this.

    The likely explanation for this is domestication. Hare and others have tested Belaev’s Foxes regarding their skills at reading human gestures and the experimental line (those foxes that were bred because they showed much less fear or aggression toward humans) were much better than the control line (bred randomnly)

    1. That is interesting. There is a documentary floating around about d*gs, and how they are pretty much in tune with human gestures, and they look toward humans for help if there is a situation they need help on. But wolves? No.
      I do not know how solid the science is, but they showed (and I know from experience) that dogs look where you point, they look at the floor that you tap with your toe, and if they cannot get a toy from under the couch they come looking for a human to help them out.

      1. Brian Hare has presented a documentary about this research. I’ve reviewed this research reading some papers and Brian Hare’s book and the research is pretty well interesting and solid.

        Actually, Hare’s research on dogs started with Michael Tomasello, a developmental psychologist known for his work of altruism on kids and chimpanzees. It’s possible to see some videos over here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z-eU5xZW7cU

        Now, there are several researchers on this field. Hare founded a lab on Duke University and recently a lab opened on Yale University – the founder of this lab at Yale, I believe, is psychologist/primatologist Laurie Santos, which is known for her work with primates.
        Hare and other also founded Dognition – anyone in their home can help dog cogniton research by perfoming some basic test with their dogs at home. Imo, it’s a fascinating an idea.

  2. I’ve seen examples of the Piaget conservation task before, and as always it reminded me of the delicate struggle between our intuition and our cognition. In adults, this battle is often STILL played out in religion, with the truths we instinctively “know in our hearts” being rationalized as somehow wiser, purer, or better than what happens when we hesitate and rationally think through processes analytically.

    So I secretly imagined the little boy as an adult –drawing the same conclusions but explaining his results via sophisticated apologetics. He’d probably bring in quantum consciousness at some point, I suspect.

  3. Those were all fun to watch. They confirmed my sense of how all these organisms typically behave…which is certainly satisfying in a somewhat self-centered way.
    It’s good to remind ourselves when watching the small boy that we were all that age once. Also, even at our age we are still able to be fooled by only slightly more complex tests. Which is likely why we like science.

    1. Ahh, but the orangutan Librarian at the Unseen University would have a most violent reaction to being called a monkey. Ook!

  4. One thing cats have cognitively is what a psychologist friend calls “object permanence”– they continue to “believe” in the existence of an object even after it disappears from view. They can even track its anticipated location based on the movement of the object just prior to its disappearance. This is obviously adaptive if you’re chasing small animals through the underbrush. I can fool my cat, Peyton, when playing with some toy by moving my arm around my back as if to throw it, but then not doing so. She anticipates the motion and moves toward where the toy should be, but then realizes something is wrong, and begins looking around. The absence of the object in the anticipated location leads not to laughter as in the orang, nor angry confusion as in the dog, but to a more careful examination of the vicinity by the cat.

  5. Nice post, relevant new source for #TIP reference base http://www.tortucan.wordpress.com relating to animal nd human cognition issues.

    Not that it would be easy to ascertain, but what is going on neurobiologically in the various animals & people when they do (or do not as in case of cats) experience magic tricks and contextual shifts could opn up avenues of inquiry as to what makes our human perceptual development track the way it does.

  6. While taking Child Psych, several classmates used my three year old son and were rather put out that he correctly identified equivalencies. for each test. He even correctly identified and then explained (as if to a two year old) to my classmates why the moon’s crescent shapes appeared as and when they did. He also never held a pencil or crayon with his fist and was very accurate – more so than his parents – with a mouse.

    The important lesson was that not every child goes through Piaget’s steps but skips if they make early connections.

    1. If I remember correctly, there exists tentative evidence that something strange is going on in those experiments with the coins.

      This is, because, if you run it with candy or cookies instead of coins or other immaterial objects, the children will “always” pick the line that contains the most candy…

      But I can for the life of me not remember the reference at the moment

  7. Reblogged this on peakmemory and commented:
    This is a wonderful compendium of videos and Matthew Cobb is right to reference Piaget, whose work is underestimated by many evolutionary psychologists.
    Piaget saw his work in an evolutionary context and his ideas are used in comparative psychology.

  8. Ape vs. monkey:
    What is the mother tongue of the poster of that video? There are languages that do not have a distinct world for ape. It is easy to make this mistake for the native speakers of those.

  9. There is also no control for the Piaget demonstrations either. The adult frames the questions in a confusing and absurd way.

    I would argue it’s unclear whether the child really thought that there is more water in the taller vessel, or whether he was referring to the height. The stick example is even clearer — “it’s longer because you pushed it over” suggests he knows perfectly well what happened, and is receiving confusing cues from the researcher. Same with the quarters, where the child made hand movements as if he wanted to push them all back together.

    A better test would be to, for example, tell him to make sure all children got the same amount of milk, and then pour one portion out of a short glass into a taller glass and ask if it is still fair.

    Personally, I would argue there is better evidence in these videos that the Orangutan was laughing at the trick than that children really think that spreading coins out increases their number.

    1. Yes, several times I thought it seemed as if the child was telling the presenter what he felt she wanted him to say, not necessarily what he actually believed was true.

      1. There was some good research that I saw many years ago, using less ambiguous situations fro children and the effects that Piaget reported consistently disappeared. Some was by Margaret Donaldson, but I can’t find any of it in the internet. (It was a couple of decades ago.)

          1. I had a professor in college who said that he had done this experiment in grad school. They poured lemonade from a short wide glass into a tall thin one, then asked if there was more than before. The kids all said yes. They then refilled the short glass and asked kids which glass had more; the kids said the tall one. They explained to the kids that it just LOOKED like there was more; the second glass was skinnier, which made up the difference. The kids said that they understood.

            They then repeated the question and the kids parroted back, “There’s the same amount of lemonade in both glasses; it just looks like there’s more.” But when they asked the kids which glass of lemonade they wanted, the kids ALWAYS chose the tall skinny glass. It seems that the kids really do think that there’s more.

  10. Is it remotely possible that the orangutan’s reaction has less to do with his amusement at the trick, and more to do with his dashed hope that he was going to get the lichee to eat?

  11. I started using a C-PAP in February and my moggie was very confused. She’d jump on the bed and snuggle and when she looked up at me she’d run away in haste. In the beginning I couldn’t understand what was happening, until I realised that I must look like something from an H G Wells novel to her.

    As moggies are want to do she died in August, but I’ll forgive her for that. 🙂

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