Chimps: Better Than Us?

Sandali the chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes) calls out for his Christmas treat of flavoured pine cones and frozen fruit at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, 23 December 2004.
Photo: Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

Chimps, everyone knows, are extremely smug. Just look at that one up here. He’s (?) so pleased with himself. Unfortunately, science just gave this insufferable species a major asset in its ongoing war on our collective self-esteem.

A study just released by Caltech researchers found that chimps consistently outperformed humans in a common game-theory exercise called the inspection game (PDF) that models real-world situations like employees trying to catch a quick glimpse of, say, Science of Us while their bosses aren’t watching. Research subjects in both Kyoto and Guinea were paired off with human partners, and corresponding chimp duos performed consistently better.

This isn’t the first time this has happened:

Superior chimpanzee performance could be due to excellent short-term memory, a particular strength in chimps. This has been shown in other experiments undertaken at the Kyoto facility. In one game, a sequence of numbers is briefly flashed on the computer touch screen, and then the numbers quickly revert to white squares. Players must tap the squares in the sequence corresponding to the numbers they were initially shown. Chimpanzees are brilliant at this task… humans find it much more challenging.

One of the researchers explained in the press release that this kind of work will allow us to “map out the set of brain circuits that humans and chimps rely upon so we can discover whether or not human strategic choices go down a longer pathway or get diffused into different parts of the brain compared to chimps.” This knowledge will also, presumably, allow us to finally reassert our dominance over these haughty wannabe humans.