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For most people, it would seem clear that humans are the smartest creatures on the face of the Earth, but is this really the case? We are the ones who control the world, we create art, we understand our bodies and how the universe works – but are we innately more intelligent? A group of psychologists believe the answer to that question is not as clear as it seems.

Chimps are a scientist’s favorite model to understand human brain and behavior. Chimp and human DNAs are extremely similar (over 99 percent), which means that we are closer genetically than horses and zebras. In this present study, Colin Camerer and Tetsuro Matsuzawa devised a strategic two player video game, and had chimps face off with humans.

The game was pretty simple – each player simply had to choose between left and right squares on a touch-screen panel, without knowing what the opponent was doing. Player A won if they chose the same thing, played B won if they chose a different thing. The opponent’s choice was displayed after every selection; the reward was an apple cube for the chimp, or money for the human.

If you play more and more games, games like this start to fall into some type of pattern. You can predict such patterns after some games, with game theory. In this experiment, it turns out that chimps played a near-ideal game, as their choices leaned closer to game theory equilibrium. The key to performing well at this game would be remembering your opponents’ past choices and make predictions based on them – and chimps turned out to be better at this than their human opponents. Scientists believe it’s the chimps’ amazing working memory that does the trick.

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It seems quite surprising that chimps beat us at a game that is basically, in the long run, about memory and planning – but this just highlights the different evolutionary paths we took. The human brain is three times larger and capable of operations much more complex than that of the chimp, but in order to reach this, we had to “give up” (in an evolutionary sense) a big chunk of our operational memory. Chimps use their good memory and strategic minds to get a competitive edge over their peers, in order to raise themselves higher in the social chain.

In other words, there’s no simple answer to “Are humans smarter than chimps?”. The interesting thing is that, if you’d play against a perfect opponent, against someone (or some thing) with perfect memory and planning, the best challenge would be to simply choose randomly.

Journal Reference:

Christopher Flynn Martin, Rahul Bhui, Peter Bossaerts, Tetsuro Matsuzawa & Colin Camerer. Chimpanzee choice rates in competitive games match equilibrium game theory predictions.     Scientific Reports    4, Article number:    5182    doi:10.1038/srep05182