Are you smarter than a monkey?

Are you smarter that a monkey? Maybe not, according to a problem-solving study that pitted simians against humans.

It seem primates are more willing to explore more efficient options to solving a problem, and exhibit more cognitive flexibility than humans, according to the Georgia State University study.

“We are a unique species and have various ways in which we are exceptionally different from every other creature on the planet,” said Julia Watzek, a graduate student in psychology at Georgia State. “But we’re also sometimes really dumb.”

Ms Watzek led a problem-solving study involving capuchin and rhesus macaque monkeys, and humans. The monkeys were less prone to “cognitive set” bias when presented a chance to switch to a more efficient way to solve a problem. Earlier studies with baboons and chimpanzees also showed a greater willingness in primates to use optional shortcuts. Humans, on the other hand, persist in using a familiar learned strategy despite its inefficiency.

“I think we’re [becoming] less and less surprised when primates outsmart humans sometimes,” said Ms Watzek.

Using a computer, 56 humans, 22 capuchin and seven rhesus monkeys had to follow a specific pattern by pushing a striped square, then a dotted square and finally, once it appeared, a triangle, towards a goal. They would then receive a reward for their successful efforts, while wrong results led to a brief timeout and no reward.

Subsequent trials then presented the triangle option immediately without having to push the other squares in sequence. All of the monkeys quickly adapted to the shortcut. More than six in 10 humans did not. In fact, 70 per cent of all the monkeys used the shortcut the very first time it was available compared to only one human.

“There’s a heavy reliance on rote learning [in humans] and doing it the way you were taught and to specifically not take the shortcut,” said Ms Watzek.

“More of the humans do take the shortcut after seeing a video of somebody taking the shortcut, but about 30 per cent still don’t.

“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.”

The study illustrates how humans are prone to learned biases with potential for inefficient decisions and missed opportunities.

While sticking with familiar, proven patterns or habits can sometimes have its advantages, other times, using inefficient, biased or outdated practices could have far-reaching consequences.

“To set ourselves up for good decision-making, sometimes that means changing available options,” Ms Watzek said.

“I’m not proposing to topple the entire Western education system, but 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. Just be mindful of it. There are good reasons for why we do what we do, but I think sometimes it can get us into a lot of trouble.”

Are you surprised by these results? Is it possible that humans are becoming stunted in their evolution, while monkeys may be evolving more rapidly? Someone commenting on this study said that this research may reflect why humans are so disinclined to do what is required to mitigate climate change. Do you agree?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca has worked in publishing and media in one form or another for around 25 years. He's a voracious reader, word spinner and art, writing, design, painting, drawing, travel and photography enthusiast. You'll often find him roaming through galleries or exploring the streets of his beloved Melbourne and surrounding suburbs, sketchpad or notebook in hand, smiling.
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