We may like to think that we’re smarter, but a new study shows that monkeys show greater cognitive flexibility than humans when deciding how to solve a problem.
New research at the Georgia State University reveals that capuchin and rhesus macaque monkeys are significantly less susceptible to “cognitive set” bias than humans. In other words, when presented with a new, more efficient option for solving a problem, one of these monkeys shows more willingness to try it out than a human.
Your brain gets smart but your head gets dumb
“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 and the paper’s lead author.
“But we’re also sometimes really dumb.”
Watzek’s study supports earlier findings with other primate species — baboons and chimpanzees — who also showed greater willingness to use shortcuts, when available, to earn a treat. Humans, both the present and previous studies note, have the tendency to persist in using a familiar strategy even if it is more inefficient, and even if they see the alternative at work.
The present study worked with 56 humans, 22 capuchin monkeys, and 7 rhesus monkeys. First, the researchers established a specific strategy to lead to a solution. They taught the participants, both human and animal, through trial and error, to follow a pattern on a computer — this involved pushing a striped square, then a dotted square, and finally a triangle (when it appeared) to receive a reward. Humans were rewarded with either a jingle or points to let them know they got it right, and the monkeys received a banana pellet. Wrong results were penalized with a brief time out and, obviously, no reward.
After all the participants got a strong grasp on the process, the team switched it up. Subsequent trials presented the triangle option immediately, without the first two steps (involving the squares). The team notes that all of the monkeys took the chance and used this ‘shortcut’ — meanwhile, only around 39% of the human participants did. Furthermore, around 70% of the monkeys used the shortcut the very first time it was presented, while only a single human participant did the same.
“There’s a heavy reliance on rote learning and doing it the way you were taught and to specifically not take the shortcut,” Watzek said of the human subjects. “More of the humans do take the shortcut after seeing a video of somebody taking the shortcut, but about 30 percent still don’t,” she adds.
“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.”
Rote learning involves mastery or memorization of a skill or concept through repetition and should be painfully familiar to anyone who’s ever crammed for an exam.
The findings are quite interesting as they show how one of our most powerful tools — learning by repetition — can work to hold us back, lead us to make inefficient decisions, and potentially miss opportunities.
The team notes that, usually, sticking to what you know isn’t that much of a cost; for example, always taking the same route to work isn’t that big of a deal, even if a shorter alternative is available. However, there are cases where relying on inefficient or outdated practices can have dramatic consequences: the team points to the recent global financial crisis when many experts ignored warning signs and persisted with risky trading and lending habits. In the end, it led to a housing market crash and all those delightful economic issues we’ve been dealing with since.
“To set ourselves up for good decision-making, sometimes that means changing available options,” 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.”
Sarah Pope, a former graduate student in the Neuroscience Institute at Georgia State and a co-author of the study, also carried out the experiment in Namibia with members of the semi-nomadic Himba tribe (which, the authors note, was not exposed to Western education and live in a less predictable environment). They were quicker to use the shortcut immediately, but more than half still used the three-step process as well. Children aged 7-10 that were given the same task at Zoo Atlanta were four times more likely than adults to use the shortcut — but still, more than half continued to use the learned strategy.
So while our brains are undeniably very efficient tools, we should definitely exercise some oversight; their intentions may be good, but the results don’t always line up.
The paper “Capuchin and rhesus monkeys but not humans show cognitive flexibility in an optional-switch task” has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.