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Here's How a Chimp Is Smarter Than You

Chimps recently figured out a computer game more quickly than humans. It may be because they're so familiar with navigating basic win-lose dynamics.
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(Photo: Public Domain)

(Photo: Public Domain)

It might be unwise to assume that you're smarter than a chimp.

Chimpanzees are one of the two species that are most closely related to humans. While matriarchal bonobos, our other kissing cousins, share many of our gentler and freer-loving traits, patriarchal chimpanzees exhibit our darker sides—desires to murder, bully, and war. But the similarities aren't all grim.

While chimpanzees might not have mastered the same superior language skills as humans, new research suggests that, in at least some respects, they are our intellectual equals—perhaps even our superiors.

While chimpanzees might not have mastered the same superior language skills as humans, new research suggests that, in at least some respects, they are our intellectual equals—perhaps even our superiors.

Researchers from California, Utah, and Japan pitted chimpanzee mothers against their young in a basic computer game that tested their ability to strategize by learning from past moves. The game was not explained to the chimps, which were in the same room as each other as they played, but the animals quickly figured it out. (Mother-child pairs were selected because unrelated chimps, or players that shared other relationships, might fight for physical control of the room. Because they share our surly side, too.) One chimp chose a left or right button; the other tried to guess which button would be played. For each round, just one of the players won a prize of automatically dispensed apple pieces, and the payoff was greater on the left side than on the right.

The researchers pitted humans against each other in the exact same game, though the payoffs for victory in each round were financial rather than fruity. Again, the game was not explained, and the players were barred from speaking with each other. Some of the human experiments were conducted in Japan, and some were in Guinea.

The chimps played at a frenetic pace compared with the humans. And, even when compared on a round-by-round basis, the chimpanzees' games more quickly reached the equilibrium state predicted by game theory. The chimpanzees figured out the game's nuances—and their opponents—more quickly than did the humans.

"Equilibrium predictions assume mathematically that all organisms making choices correctly anticipate what others do," the scientists write in a paper published last week in Scientific Reports. "Dozens of studies with human subjects show substantial deviations from that idealized equilibrium state. However, chimpanzee choices in our data are also closer to the equilibrium prediction, and are more responsive to past history and to payoff changes, than human choices."

Chimpanzees are known for having excellent memory. But California Institute of Technology professor Colin Camerer, one of the study's authors, thinks the results, which he described as surprising, are about more than just memory skills.

"The hypothesis is that win or lose-type games are seminal things that happen in a chimp's life," Camerer says, referring to "hide and seek" situations with predators, gambits designed to seek domination within a group, and incursion by rival groups to maximize territory. "They have a lot of experience, we think, with these win-lose situations."