How Smart Are Chimpanzees? Everything We Know About Their Intelligence

Written by Niccoy Walker
Updated: September 22, 2023
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When assessing the animal kingdom, chimpanzees rank at the top for intelligence. Chimps can communicate in complex ways, use tools, and solve problems. When compared to the human species, chimpanzees bear resemblance in their behavior and skills. While opposable thumbs allow them more control of their environment, these animals’ intelligence goes beyond thumbs. So, just how smart are chimpanzees? Learn about their intelligence, including their problem-solving skills and how they compare to other species.

The Chimpanzee’s Mental Abilities: An Overview

Chimpanzee Sanctuary, Game Reserve - Uganda, East Africa

Chimpanzees are active thinkers capable of making informed decisions.

©Sam DCruz/

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As a great ape, the chimpanzee possesses intelligence superior to most animals on the planet. A chimp’s genes determine about half of its intelligence, while environmental factors make up the other half. They are not passive thinkers who only learn based on punishment and reward; chimpanzees are active thinkers capable of making individual decisions. 

So, how smart are chimpanzees? Like humans, chimps have a concept of self, meaning they remember past personal events and can look forward to the future. These animals can make choices that are not simply based on reflexes or conditioning. They understand cause and effect and can make judgments and decisions based on insightful reasoning. 

Chimps are aware of themselves and their own knowledge and limitations. In fact, they understand that other animals and humans have different mental states and perspectives different from their own. This understanding is called the “theory of mind,” and it was once believed to be solely unique to humans. 

The intelligence of chimpanzees is constantly being revealed as more studies come to light on their skills and abilities.

Cognitive Capabilities: Understanding Chimpanzee’s Problem-Solving Skills and Learning Aptitude

Chimpanzees are highly social animals that understand death. They grieve when loved ones die.

©Ari Wid/

In humans, cognitive control involves self-knowledge, regulatory processes that allocate attention, evaluation of information, manipulation of information, the ability to plan for the future, and the ability to lessen distractions and impulsivity. During studies of cognitive control among chimpanzees, researchers found that these animals have a “psychological continuity with humans.”

Here is a list of a chimpanzee’s cognitive abilities:

  • They can exhibit self-control by distracting themselves as a way to delay gratification.
  • Chimpanzees have possession of an autobiographical self. They understand their past, present, and future, and they feel the pain of not being able to fulfill their needs. 
  • These animals have higher-order thinking, such as using language to communicate, make decisions, plan for the future, and process complex information.
  • They have the ability to choose
  • Chimps can recognize themselves in mirrors, on TV, or in photos.
  • They recognize body parts, even using flashlights and mirrors to examine themselves.
  • They have a sense of self and determination, including having goals and intentionally working towards them.
  • These animals can remember past events and anticipate the future.
  • Chimpanzees can understand number sequences, which include correlating Arabic symbols to exact quantities.
  • They can pick out tools they’ve never seen, guess what they are used for, and save them for future use.
  • Chimps can learn through observation and achieve the same results through other methods.
  • They are capable of deferred imitation, meaning they can recall how someone did something in the past and replicate their actions in real-time.

A Chimpanzee’s Cognitive Abilities in Communication and Social Situations

Group of Chimpanzees fighting in the field.

Chimpanzees have moral inclinations and will ostracize individuals who violate social norms.


  • They understand they have minds and can reflect on their own thoughts. Chimps also understand that others have minds and may know things that they don’t. These animals have the capacity for empathy and can understand another’s situation, motives, and feelings.
  • Chimpanzees can intentionally communicate through gestures, vocalizations, and sign language. 
  • They use their imaginations in pretend play.
  • They make judgments about how people understand their sign language and will readjust how they ask things based on the response they receive. Chimps will also repeat phrases when dealing with inattentive partners. They communicate in a way that compares to a young human child.
  • Similar to children aged two through seven, chimpanzees will use sign language to talk to themselves, especially during imaginative play.
  • They can count items using touching, pointing, and rearranging. Their ability to store and recall information pertaining to numbers and sequences is on par with adult humans.
  • Chimps have moral inclinations and will even ostracize individuals who violate social norms.
  • They understand the difference between life and death and can feel grief and depression when someone dies.
  • Chimpanzees can make and use tools using two or more objects or use different tools in a sequence to achieve a goal.

Intelligence in the Animal Kingdom: Comparing Chimpanzee to Other Species

monkey with a stick

Chimpanzees make and use tools with two or more objects to solve complex problems and reach goals.

©Norma Cornes/

How smart are chimpanzees? Chimpanzees are among the smartest animals on Earth. When compared to other animals, chimps are similar in intelligence to orangutans, bottlenose dolphins, elephants, and African grey parrots. Among the great apes, orangutans are slightly more intelligent than chimpanzees due to their superior tool usage, able to manage hammers, nails, and even siphon liquids.

When compared to humans, chimps have intelligence on par with a human toddler or young child. Humans have more flexibility in our ability to learn and adapt, making our intelligence superior to that of the great apes. 

Past Discoveries and Studies on Chimpanzee’s Intelligence

Here are some studies on chimpanzee intelligence and what they concluded:

  • A study measuring personality, performance, and motivation using touchscreen tasks found that “chimpanzees possess broad intellectual capacities that are affected by their personalities.
  • One study found that an individual chimpanzee’s self-control directly correlated to its intelligence.
  • A study measuring chimpanzee intelligence found that differences in cognitive performance are heritable, meaning a chimp’s intelligence is largely determined by its genes.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Windzepher/iStock via Getty Images

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About the Author

Niccoy is a professional writer for A-Z Animals and her primary focus is on birds, travel, and interesting facts of all kinds. Niccoy has been writing and researching about travel, nature, wildlife, and business for several years and holds a business degree from Florida State College. A resident of Florida, Niccoy enjoys hiking, cooking, reading, and spending time at the beach.

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