Chimpanzees at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute playing the Inspection Game, formulated by Caltech. / Chris Martin
Chimpanzees are better than humans in playing strategically in a simple computer game.
In the game, two players, either both chimps or both humans, sit back-to-back to each other facing a computer screen. They choose either a box on the left or a box on the right on the touch screen.
One player's goal is to choose the same box as the other person, and the other player's goal is to choose a different box from the opponent's.
This digital "hide-and-seek" game was repeated 200 times, and the winning player was awarded, either with an apple chunk for the chimp or money for the human.
In a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports, researchers found that six chimps at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute were much better than human participants at recognizing patterns in their opponent's selections.
"Chimps are really good at adjusting and gaining a competitive edge if there is a little bit of a slip by their opponent, until generally they are both balanced," said Colin Camerer, a professor of behavioral economics at the California Institute of Technology and the study's lead researcher, in an interview with USA TODAY Network.
Humans, on the other hand, don't seem to detect any "competitive mistake" they could take advantage of, Camerer said.
In game theory, if two opponents are playing optimally, there is a limit to how much each player can win. That limit is known as the Nash equilibrium, named after the mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., the inspiration for the movie A Beautiful Mind.
In the study, chimps came much closer to the Nash equilibrium than humans did.
"If you're not playing the equilibrium, there's some way to be exploited," said Rahul Bhui, a Caltech graduate student and part of the study's research team, in an interview with USA TODAY Network.
The differences between chimps' and humans' performance in the study could be the result of differences in how chimps and humans develop socially. Young chimps are constantly playing competitive games such as wresting and hide-and-seek, whereas humans make a shift from competition to cooperation at a young age.
"Maybe chimps are sharper and more focused on pure competition," Bhui said.
Humans' reliance on language also could impair our performance in this kind of zero-sum game.
"We're better at a lot more complicated situations where language is often useful," Camerer said.
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