We humans assume we are the smartest of all creations. In a world with over 8.7 million species, only we have the ability to understand the inner workings of our body while also unraveling the mysteries of the universe. We are the geniuses, the philosophers, the artists, the poets and savants. We amuse at a dog playing ball, a dolphin jumping rings, or a monkey imitating man because we think of these as remarkable acts for animals that, we presume, aren’t smart as us. But what issmart? Is it just about having ideas, or being good at language and math?
In a recent study by psychologists Colin Camerer and Tetsuro Matsuzawa, chimps and humans played a strategy game – and unexpectedly, the chimps outplayed the humans.
Chimps are a scientist’s favorite model to understand human brain and behavior. Chimp and human DNAs overlap by a whopping 99 percent, which makes us closer to chimps than horses to zebras. Yet at some point, we evolved differently. Our behavior and personalities, molded to some extent by our distinct societies, are strikingly different from that of our fellow primates. Chimps are aggressive and status-hungry within their hierarchical societies, knit around a dominant alpha male. We are, perhaps, a little less so. So the question arises whether competitive behavior is hard-wired in them.
In the present study, chimp pairs or human pairs contested in a two-player video game. Each player simply had to choose between left and right squares on a touch-screen panel, while being blind to their rival’s choice. Player A, for instance, won, each time their choices matched, and player B won, if their choices did not. The opponent’s choice was displayed after every selection, and payoffs in the form of apple cubes or money were dispensed to the winner.
In Camerer’s experiment, it turned out that chimps played a near-ideal game, as their choices leaned closer to game theory equilibrium. Whereas, when humans played, their choices drifted farther off from theoretical predictions. Since the game is a test of how much the players recall of their opponent’s choice history, and how cleverly they maneuver by following choice patterns, the results suggest that chimps may have a superior memory and strategy, which help them perform better in a competition, than humans. In other words, chimps seem to have some sort of a knack when fighting peers in a face-off.
Their exceptional working memory may be a key factor for chimps’ strategic skills. A movie clip, part of a study in 2007, impressively captures the eidetic memory of a 2-year old chimp as he played a memory masking game. It makes jaws drop to see him memorize random numerical patterns within 200 milliseconds, about half the time it takes for the human eye to blink. Memory of such incredible precision is rare in human babies and close to absent in adults, save for fictitious characters like Sheldon Cooper.