The future of future-oriented cognition in non-humans : theory and the empirical case of the great apes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


One of the most contested areas in the field of animal cognition is non-human future-oriented cognition. We critically examine key underlying assumptions in the debate, which is mainly preoccupied with certain dichotomous positions, the most prevalent being whether or not ‘real’ future orientation is uniquely human. We argue that future orientation is a theoretical construct threatening to lead research astray. Cognitive operations occur in the present moment and can be influenced only by prior causation and the environment, at the same time that most appear directed towards future outcomes. Regarding the current debate, future orientation becomes a question of where on various continua cog- nition becomes ‘truly’ future-oriented. We question both the assumption that episodic cognition is the most important process in future-oriented cognition and the assumption that future-oriented cognition is uniquely human. We review the studies on future-oriented cognition in the great apes to find little doubt that our closest relatives possess such ability. We conclude by urging that future-oriented cognition not be viewed as expression of some select set of skills. Instead, research into future-oriented cognition should be approached more like research into social and physical cognition.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Zoology
  • Psychology (excluding Applied Psychology)


  • mental time travel, episodic memories, episodic foresight, animal cognition, primate cognition, animal planning
Original languageEnglish
Article number20130486
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1655
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Publication categoryResearch