University of Pennsylvania
David Premack’s contributions have advanced psychological science’s comparative understanding of cognition, and its understanding of the nature of animal and human minds. Premack’s powerful analyses have illustrated cognitive similarities and differences across a diverse array of minds.
At each stage of his career Premack has tackled deep questions that are at the heart of psychology. His initial studies revolutionized understanding of the nature of behavioral reinforcement. In what became famous as Premack’s principle, he showed us a surprising answer to the question “what is reinforcing?” The answer was that reinforcers are relative, revealing that the nature of reinforcement was more dynamic and subtle than many had believed.
Premack’s most famous contributions stem from his groundbreaking studies on comparative cognition and symbol use in chimpanzees. He leapt over sterile debates on language capability to probe more directly just what actually are chimpanzees’ cognitive symbolic and reasoning capabilities in a variety of domains. Premack’s often-ingenious experiments provided fascinating insights into the minds of our closest primate relations.
In one of his most broadly influential steps, Premack introduced the concept of theory of mind, which refers to the ability to infer the mental states of other individuals (intentions, beliefs, desires). Theory of mind quickly spread to shape research in human developmental psychology, clinical psychology, and cognitive science, in addition to comparative psychology.
Premack’s most recent research contributions, with wife and colleague Ann Premack, have focused on understandings of intentionality and causality cognition in human infants and children. Their work facilitates comparison of cognitive achievements both across the span of early human development, and between young humans and other primates.
David Premack’s experiments are consistent for their creativity and originality. His studies have delivered over 50 years of illuminating results that carry great theoretical importance for psychology.