Looking to outwit the competition? Hire a chimp. (+video)

In some simple competitive scenarios, chimpanzees have a cognitive advantage over humans, finds a new study.

By , Staff writer

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    Chaos, a Chimpanzee, looks through the glass at visitors during his public debut in the Onstead Foundation Chimpanzee Habitat at the Houston Zoo in this Dec. 3, 2013 file photo.
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Do you have a chimpanzee on your team? If so, you might have a strategic edge, a new experiment reveals.

In an experiment conducted at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute and published in the journal Scientific Reports, scientists held an "inspection game" to quantify chimps’ and humans’ strategic choices.  

The game has two players: the Mismatcher and the Matcher. Each ape – be it human or chimp – sits facing away from the other, looking at a computer screen that displays two blue boxes. The Matcher's goal is to select the same box as his or her opponent. The Mismatcher’s goal is to select a different box.

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As with other games such as tic-tac-toe and rock, paper, scissors, the way to win is to detect patterns in your opponents' moves. Chimps are apparently better at this than humans: After 200 games, the chimps averaged close to optimal play.

Inspection games pop up in the everyday lives of both species. California Institute of Technology finance researcher Peter Bossaerts, who coauthored the study puts it somewhat like this: Suppose you’re a (human) office worker who aims to minimize the time you spend actually doing your job and to maximize the time you spend slacking off, say by reading online science articles when your boss isn’t looking. To avoid getting caught, you learn your boss’s behavioral patterns. Both you and the boss are seeking to detect the other’s pattern, while at the same time trying to appear unpredictable.

A similar dynamic occurs among chimps, says Caltech graduate student and study coauthor Rahul Bhui. Imagine chimps patrolling the border of their troop’s territory. The patrol encounters a larger group of chimps. The first group must anticipate the moves of the other so as to avoid confrontation, while those in the more powerful group actually want to meet face-to-face, so that they can win the territory through dominance.

The Kyoto chimps learned the inspection game more quickly, played it more quickly, and played it better than the humans.

Bhui says when he plotted the data, he was surprised by how closely the chimps approached the optimal result. The primates average results were only 2 percentage points off the so-called Nash Equilibrium, the point at which they could not benefit any further by changing their strategy. By comparison, the humans averaged about 13 percentage points off the Nash Equilibrium.

What’s more, when the researchers swapped the chimps’ roles and later shifted the reward so choosing the box on one side warranted a greater reward, the chimps’ strategies quickly adapted.

In Kyoto, the researchers worked with six common chimpanzees and 16 Japanese students, rewarding the chimps with apple pieces and the students with coins.

They also took their study to Bossou, Guinea. This time, 12 adult men faced each other, rather than sitting back-to-back, and they used bottle caps instead of computers. Winners received about one full day's earnings. Even though the stakes were much higher, the results in Guinea were the same as those in Kyoto.

The chimps played the game in mother-child pairs, so perhaps they had an advantage in detecting the others’ patterns. But the researchers note that, if anything, kinship influence would have prompted the chimps to behave more cooperatively than competitively.

"Competition is central in chimpanzee life," says Bhui. The researchers hypothesize that this instinctual focus on competition partially explains the chimps' superior performance, while human society is more cooperative. This game, Bhui says, was designed on the "pure essence of competition." Humans "shift at a young age from competition to cooperation using our special skill at language," said study coauthor and Caltech economist Colin Camerer in a press release

It could even be that our language abilities are actually holding us back. Study coauthor Tetsuro Matsuzawa, proposes a "cognitive tradeoff hypothesis" in which, as the human brain evolves to become more specialized in language, it processes straightforward scenarios in more complicated, abstract ways.

Bhui marvels at finding "remarkable abilities in unexpected places." The chimps "don't allow their competition much of an edge to exploit."

This experiment wasn’t the first one to showcase the primates’ superior cognitive skills. In 2007, scientists Dr. Matsuzawa and a colleague revealed that chimps also seem to have better working memories than humans. In that experiment a young chimp, after looking at a screen for just one fifth of a second, was able to accurately recall the location of nine numbers, twice as often as college students could.

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