Not monkeying around: Monkeys “exhibit more cognitive flexibility” compared to humans, say researchers
12/11/2020 // Michael Alexander // Views

Apparently, monkeys outperform humans when it comes to coming up with strategies. This is according to new research by a group of psychologists from Georgia State University, who conducted a test that pitted the cognitive flexibility of humans against those of monkeys.

The test, as described in the journal Scientific Reports, involved 56 humans and 29 monkeys, 22 of which were capuchins and 7 of which were rhesus monkeys.

According to the researchers, all monkeys and humans had to follow a pattern by pushing shapes and patterns on a touchscreen computer, in a specific order for them to receive a reward. For the humans, it was either a jingle or a look at their points to let them know if they got the pattern right, while for the monkeys, it was a banana pellet. Getting wrong results, the researchers said, meant the subject would get a brief timeout from the test and no reward.

As detailed in the study, when subjects pressed on the squares in the correct sequence, a triangle would appear in place of one of the squares, and when pressed, would produce a reward.

To test how flexible the parties could be in their cognitive process, however, the researchers began inserting the triangle on the touchscreen from the beginning.

What they found was that the monkeys were much quicker than the human subjects when it came to figuring out the fact they could get the reward just by touching the triangle. While the human subjects, would instead, insist on first pressing the squares in the original sequence before pressing the triangle to get their reward.


Monkeys outperformed humans

In their experiment, the researchers found that 70 percent of the monkeys figured out they could just press the triangle and bypass the sequencing. This is in stark contrast to the 61 percent of the human test subjects who insisted on going through the sequence before pressing the triangle for the reward.

"I think we're less and less surprised when primates outsmart humans sometimes," Julia Watzek, the study’s lead author and a graduate researcher at Georgia State, said in a statement. She noted that humans often rely heavily on rote learning and doing things the way they are taught. (Related: Chimp mothers teach their offspring to use moss as drinking sponge in the latest example of intelligent, conscious lives of primates.)

For example, Watzek said, while most of the human test subjects would take the test's shortcuts after seeing a video of somebody taking the shortcut, around 30 percent would still opt to stick to solving the entire sequence.

"In another version, we told them they shouldn't be afraid to try something new. More of them did use the shortcut then, but many of them still didn't" Watsek explained, adding that there may be both social and evolutionary reasons for the preference for the rote approach to problem-solving.

According to the researchers, the study basically shows how humans, when compared to other primates, suffer from learned biases. These can cause them to make impractical decisions only because they were taught to stick with what's familiar.

"It is interesting to think through ways in which we train our children to think a specific way and stay in the box and not outside of it," Watzek said, adding that while there are good reasons for teaching and sticking to routines, doing so unquestioningly can sometimes get people into trouble.

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