Hiasl, a 26-year-old male chimpanzee looks through the glass at his enclosure at an animal sanctuary in Voesendorf, south of Vienna, on Friday, May 4, 2007. Austrian animal rights advocates are waging an unusual court battle to get the chimpanzee legally declared a "person." Hiasl's supporters argue that he needs that status to become a legal entity who can receive donations and get a guardian to look out for his interests. (AP Photo/Lilli Strauss) / Associated Press
If you've ever dreamed of playing rock-paper-scissors with a chimpanzee, be forewarned: All your human intelligence aside, that chimp may have the advantage.
An Indianapolis Zoo researcher recently published a study that showed chimpanzees do better when it comes to random choices - which is actually the winning strategy - on certain games.
Game theory has long held that the best approach when playing a game like rock-paper-scissors repeatedly is to make completely random choices from one turn to the next.
But humans just can't grasp this, said Christopher Flynn Martin, a post-doctoral researcher at the Indianapolis Zoo.
"It's really hard for humans to be random," he said.
Martin wondered whether it would be just as hard for our closest genetic relatives.
So he took chimpanzees who have learned how to use computers and had them do a simple matching game. The two chimpanzees would sit a computer, playing a simple game, the object of which was to choose between two squares on the screen. Each chimp choose between two squares.
One player, considered the matcher, is given a treat if the two choices matched. The other earned the apple cube if the choices did not match.
"One of the touch panels is always the station where the matcher wins and the other is where the mismatcher wins," said Martin, who did this work as part of his doctoral dissertation at Kyoto University. "So it's kind of like a hide and seek game."
A human would try to strategize based on what his or her opponent just did. But random choices prove to be the more successful ones.
And chimpanzees, it turns out, prove far better at being random than we do. Martin and co-authors at the California Institute of Technology recently published their findings in the online journal Scientific Reports.
One reason could be that chimpanzees live in strict dominance hierarchies and engage in constant fighting to maintain that social structure, Martin said.
"They're very good at being competitive and that might promote this kind of strategic sophistication, whereas humans are more egalitarian," Martin said.
Now Martin would like to test how well another great ape species, orangutans, do when faced with this task. Unlike chimpanzees, orangutans live alone in the wild so perhaps they more resemble humans when it comes to proficiency at this game, he said.
Or, perhaps the orangutans will unseat the chimpanzees.
For now, however, the chimpanzee remains king.
"We are surprised at how closely they came to the game theoretic benchmarks," Martin said. "They came closer than any other species has ever come."
Read the original story: Think you're so smart? Ask a chimp