A study undertaken by the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute and Cal-tech showed that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, are better than humans at strategy planning, among other traits. The study compared results of memory and strategy competitions between six chimpanzee contestants and human contestants, comprised of 16 undergraduate students in Kyoto, Japan and 12 people in Bossou, Guinea.
The researchers had the chimpanzees and humans play a within-species one-on-one strategy planning game called the Inspection Game, which decisively showed the chimpanzees more adept at strategy and with better short-term memory than their human counterparts. The game is played by two players back-to-back facing a computer screen choosing between two blue squares. The players in Guinea used bottle caps. Players are not allowed to communicate verbally or be informed of their opponents payoff. The player must simply choose the left or right square, and is rewarded when matching their opponents move. The player is also rewarded when the opponent mismatches a move.
The study aligns as predicted with equilibrium theory, or the Nash Equation. This theory was developed by John Forbes Nash Jr., the subject of the film A Beautiful Mind from 2001. The equilibrium theory in the context of the the study was when two of the chimpanzees were each playing at their maximum potential of strategy as relative to their opponent’s strategy, reaching an equilibrium point.
Part of why the chimpanzees were more successful, researchers believe, is previous research conducted by this study’s coauthor Tetsuro Matsuzawa that showed chimpanzees have superior short-term memory skills over humans. Their short-term memory superiority, along with visual acuity, increased competitive drive and pattern recognition is believed to be the primary reason chimpanzees outperformed their human counterparts. Said Colin Camerer of Cal-tech, “it seems like they’re keeping better track” in regards to previous choices made by their opponents.
The researchers speculate that the chimpanzees’ proclivity to such strategy and memory games is an evolutionary trade off with humans, the younger species. While humans became the more cooperative species, chimpanzees retained their competitive edge.
This trade-off is more formally known as the “cognitive trade off hypothesis,” which hypothesizes that as humans developed certain specialization such as language and categorization their capacities for basic skills such as pattern recognition and detailed perception were markedly reduced. The latter two skills are especially useful for tracking choices made by an opponent in competition, and were exemplified by the study’s chimpanzees who more often reached a point of Nash’s equilibrium than the human players.
The study did not simply stop at playing the Inspection Game. Researchers changed opponents and rewards, and the chimpanzees were better able to adapt than the human players during game play. Chimpanzees were given snacks as a reward for winning games.
The chimpanzees were decisively better than the two human samples in the study at winning the strategy planning games, reaching theoretical best-possible score as outlined by the Nash Equation. The two-option game, researchers said, is a yes-no, risk and reward situation which is found in the human world of business as well as the wild.
By Jesse Eells-Adams