The cognitive abilities of chimpanzees are truly amazing. Their social life is very complex. It is not always easy to understand the changes in their social situations, which develop according to the environmental and structural conditions within the group. The chimpanzees quite often undergo processes of fusion and fission of their groups, and then individuals at this stage must decide in the case, for example, of fission, whether to go to one side or the other. In psychology, this phenomenon is called cognitive decision making, a kind of strategy that is chosen by an individual, when faced with this alternative. It is a cognitive representation for achieving a purpose. Of course, chimpanzees are conditioned in this choice by the social situations in which they find themselves, by their age, whether they are leaders or submissive, females or males, and whether they are sexually mature or not. They are not solely dependent on these choices though. Things are more complex than they might seem, deciding whether to stay in the original group or move on to the new group will then be important in order to remain safe and sound. This is not a betrayal, as it might appear, but to make an assessment of the possibility of changing, for example, an alliance, an affiliation without so many psychological traumas. Few animals are faced with these definitive choices that mark their lives.

The social state of chimpanzees is quite dynamic. It resembles men (though not too much!). In all this, the most remarkable fact discovered by researchers is when chimpanzees are held in captivity or semi captivity their intellectual abilities increase as compared to living in a free state or in the wild. The lack of freedom probably sharpens the wits of these animals, for example, demonstrated when they build tools with their own hands to solve problems, as was observed almost a century ago by the German psychologist and gestaltist Wolfgang Köhler.

Theory of mind

Using this theory, that is, the possibility of understanding in advance the intentions of others whose behavior could have negative consequences, there are discussions among scientists which are still ongoing. It is a question of preventing tactical deception, of anticipating the behavior of others, before they act, perhaps with a counter-deception. Is it difficult to prove scientifically whether there are such evaluation skills in animals and, if they exist, how should they be measured correctly? Ethologists are only able to observe their external behavior to verify their existence. The chimpanzees, who have certainly demonstrated high cognitive and cultural levels, highlight the existence of their own theory of mind, that is, the awareness of the existence of other consciousnesses, why not, also to manipulate them. On the other hand, the manipulation of social relations is an integral part of the evolution of their complex social systems. It is called Machiavellian intelligence, as the great Florentine thinker, Niccolò Machiavelli, has well illustrated in his masterpiece The Prince. So the question is, do chimpanzees also possess Machiavellian intelligence or political-social intelligence? They are evolutive very close to us human beings, indeed the closest, can they be denied the possibility of plotting Machiavellian strategies? To do so they need to understand what the opponent has in mind in order to anticipate it and therefore prevent it from hurting them. On the other hand, their society is as fluid as the great philosopher Zygmunt Bauman would have said, just like our society, although not entirely. In comparison to man chimpanzees have a limit, so as not to endanger their species. In some cases, decisions are made automatically, in other cases it is a rather long, complex, but always refined process.

Their subjectivity is strong, but not as in man for whom the basis of society is increasingly undermined with this excess of the unbridled centrality of the individual over everything and not of his community. In chimpanzees, these assessments are made on the basis of a very developed system of affection that always tries to limit the damage of their actions, not to upset their society. Chimpanzees use similar strategies to cause division within their groups as they do to restore them in harmony, unlike the man who after experiencing social rifts, finds it harder to rebuild relationships, thus weakening the bonds that hold the relationships together and therefore weakening the structure of the groups.

System of alliance

In chimpanzees, the purposes of some individuals in choosing one group over another, during fission, are generally related to the search for an improvement in their social status and to have a better chance of breeding, of being able to propagate their genetic heritage as much as possible. They go in search of a new system of alliance different from the old one and this requires knowing how to select ideal partners in order to achieve goals. It is basically about using the most appropriate tactics to change teammates who were close to them until yesterday, but it is not easy. The chimpanzees in this, more than resembling adult men, resemble children who use these changes of alliances according to their purposes, for example how to convince a more intelligent schoolmate to pass him a translation or a mathematical task. In order to do so, as we know, adult men who (who were once children) need a bargaining chip that could consist of a snack, a sticker, or a marble, even if today this last exchange commodity, perhaps, is no longer used.


In this context, we will treat intentionality as an evolutionary function that manifests itself in the case of the formation of alliances in which memory has the main function. In order to field it, we have to really understand the relationship between cause and effect and to do so it needs a certain intellectual and mnemonic level, essentially a Machiavellian ability to make a decision, but intentionality is not only that. Intentionality is a representative capacity. It is a fact of consciousness, of believing or wanting something that leads towards something else by itself. It is the ability to become aware of something, although consciousness and intention are not the same things. As the great philosopher of the past Franz Brentano wrote, intentionality is the main feature of mental phenomena through which physical facts outside ourselves can be distinguished. Intentionality, in essence, has its own content, directed at something that is the object of the whole. All these operations are done with the thought of another self, that is, towards a reality that surpasses the thought itself, for example, to see an object which we desire, from a new point of view, seen in other respects.

Evolutionary aspects

Now let us ask ourselves how it was possible that the human being and also the chimpanzees in particular were able to evolve such sophisticated thought. The fact is that we inherited this from our distant ancestors, the very same ancestors from whom chimpanzees first evolved. Our society and their society have structures that are kept in place thanks to a very complex social system in which there are indispensable rules, such as empathy, solidarity and the formation of alliances for the maintenance of a high social position earned by force, therefore by physical power, but also by intelligence. On the other hand, a high social status allows access to richer and more energy giving food and also ensures their children have the same advantages. This is how the revolutions and social reversals and the overthrow of the old hierarchies were always born, as taught by the French revolution of 1789 and the Russian revolution of 1917.

The maintenance of alliances, for example, that within political parties but also between parties, for power, needed an increase of intellectual awareness of all members of the less well-off classes, and this also applies to many animals in which social structures are very rigid, but which sometimes have to be overwhelmed. A revolutionary alliance is a sort of collective Machiavellian intelligence in action and the more members there are the better.

It should not be overlooked, however, that everything that has been talked about so far has been able to manifest itself thanks to the evolution of our brain and partly also of anthropomorphic monkeys. In fact, animals that have kept their brains as they are now for millions and millions of years have never had the opportunity to carry out these social upheavals. For example, ants always behave in the same way and with the same social rules because they are ants! This applies to countless other animals, less to us humans and less to chimpanzees. Psychologically it is as if we and the chimpanzees have become, albeit slowly, capable of processing implicit images but resisting them. As in the case of a false advertisement when we have the ability to choose whether to accept or refuse. When we become totally free to do so, we could then really call ourselves human beings.


The conclusions we can draw from this are, after all, quite simple. All that is left is an attempt to better intercept human behavior on the basis of chimpanzees. Since chimpanzees belong to our own zoological Order, that of Primates (some taxonomists have inserted chimpanzees into a “Tribe” of the Hominini to which the Genders Homo and Pan would belong), their study could provide us with a lot of information that is not possible to obtain with other comparisons. Then, if chimpanzees did not manifest these cognitive abilities, it would be really impossible for them to survive. This should also apply to men. An involution of our capabilities would mean our defeat and the endangering of our presence on our planet.

Recommended reads

Köhler Wolfgang. The mentality of apes. Kegan, Trench & Trubner, London, 1925.
Brentano Franz. Psychologie vom empirischen Standpunket. Hamburg, Felix Meiner Verlag, 1874; (Eng.trans. Psychology from an empirical Standpoint. London, Routledge, 2014).
Searle John. Intentionality: An Essay in the Philosophy of Mind. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Byrne Richard & Whiten Andrew (Editors). Machiavellian intelligence: Social expertise and the evolution of intellect in monkeys, apes, and humans. Oxford, Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1988.
Bauman Zygmunt. Liquid modernity. Cambridge (UK), Polity, 2000.
de Waal Frans. Our inner Ape. New York, Riverhead Books, 2005.
Matsuzawa Tetsuro, Tomonaga Masaki. & Tanaka Masayuki. (Editors). Cognitive development in chimpanzees. New York, Springer, 2006.
Tartabini Angelo. Animal thought. Wall Street International Magazine, August 3, 2020.