How the Thatcher illusion reveals evolutionary differences in the face processing of primates

Kimberly B. Weldon, Jessica Taubert, Carolynn L. Smith, Lisa A. Parr

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


Face recognition in humans is a complex cognitive skill that requires sensitivity to unique configurations of eyes, mouth, and other facial features. The Thatcher illusion has been used to demonstrate the importance of orientation when processing configural information within faces. Transforming an upright face so that the eyes and mouth are inverted renders the face grotesque; however, when this "Thatcherized" face is inverted, the effect disappears. Due to the use of primate models in social cognition research, it is important to determine the extent to which specialized cognitive functions like face processing occur across species. To date, the Thatcher illusion has been explored in only a few species with mixed results. Here, we used computerized tasks to examine whether nonhuman primates perceive the Thatcher illusion. Chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys were required to discriminate between Thatcherized and unaltered faces presented upright and inverted. Our results confirm that chimpanzees perceived the Thatcher illusion, but rhesus monkeys did not, suggesting species differences in the importance of configural information in face processing. Three further experiments were conducted to understand why our results differed from previously published accounts of the Thatcher illusion in rhesus monkeys.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)691-700
Number of pages10
JournalAnimal Cognition
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2013
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgments This investigation was supported by RR-00165 from the NIH/NCRR to the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and R01-MH068791 to LA Parr. The Yerkes National Primate Research Center is fully accredited by the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care.


  • Chimpanzee
  • Evolution
  • Face recognition
  • Matching-to-sample
  • Rhesus monkey
  • Visual illusion


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