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Chimps beat humans in these cognitive tests

Their working memory outclasses ours.
Numbers on a screen
Credit: Human Benchmark
Key Takeaways
  • Chimpanzees top humans in various cognitive tests, particularly those that measure basic strategizing and working memory.
  • The findings challenge our biases that we are far smarter than our evolutionary cousins. We humans like to think that though we share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, our brains are wholly superior.
  • The scientific literature is almost certainly underestimating the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees and other apes compared to our own.

Though humans share 99% of our DNA with chimpanzees, we regularly shrug off the biological similarity with a haughty air of superiority, confident that our cognitive abilities — endowed by a brain three times larger, with 14 billion more neurons — firmly trounce theirs.

We shouldn’t be so sure.

True, chimpanzees have yet to master flight, manufacture semiconductors, or cure a disease, but there are a number of basic cognitive tasks where, in a battle between human and ape, they come out on top.

Are you smarter than a chimp?

For example, in a 2014 study, scientists at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute pitted pairs of humans and pairs of chimpanzees against each other in a competitive game. A chimp would sit down with another chimp and play a basic strategy game, essentially a variation of “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” in which each player would have to learn from the other’s past moves to predict what their competitor would do next. Ultimately, an ideal game develops an optimal pattern predicted by game theory, in which each player makes the most strategic choice possible. The researchers found that chimpanzees would reach this “equilibrium” well before humans. Considering that chimpanzee society tends to be competitive while human society is often more collaborative, it makes sense that chimps would have an edge in rudimentary competitive strategizing.

Another test in which chimpanzees top humans — in this case, four- and eight-year-olds — is called the inaccessible peanut task. Here, kids and chimps simply face the conundrum of a peanut or treat placed at the bottom of a vertical transparent tube that’s locked in place. The treat can’t be shaken or dumped out, and it’s inaccessible by reaching in with a finger. When tested at the Yerkes Primate Center in Georgia, chimpanzees quickly learned to fill their mouth with water from the nearby drinking fountain and spit it into the tube, raising the peanut to the surface. Only half of the eight-year-olds and less than one tenth of the 4-year-olds figured out this solution.

A third study, conducted all the way back in 2007, showcases chimpanzees’ commanding edge over humans in working memory, the ability to quickly remember information and apply it soon thereafter. Both chimpanzee and human subjects played a game in which they were displayed the numbers one through nine on a screen in varying locations. When a player hit the number one, all the other numbers were replaced with blank boxes. Then the player had to click the remaining boxes in the order of their prior numbers. (Try the game yourself here.)

Numbers on a screen
Credit: Human Benchmark

The chimpanzees and humans were equally accurate, but the chimps were far faster at completing the task. Moreover, even with six months of training, students couldn’t catch up to the chimps.

Chimps for the win

For humanity, losing a duel of the minds with our much hairier animal cousins historically has been hard to accept, born of a bias which celebrated Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal dubbed “Neo-Creationism.” As he wrote in Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, his 2016 book:

“Its central tenet is that we descend from the apes in body but not in mind. Without saying so explicitly, it assumes that evolution stopped at the human head. This idea remains prevalent in much of the social sciences, philosophy, and the humanities. It views our mind as so original that there is no point comparing it to other minds except to confirm its exceptional status.”

Perhaps this bias is why, as a team of researchers argued in a 2017 paper, studies comparing human and ape cognition have for decades been methodologically biased against apes. “All direct ape-human comparisons that have reported human superiority in cognitive function have universally failed to match the groups on testing environment, test preparation, sampling protocols, and test procedures,” they wrote.

For example, historically, apes have been tested through bars, while humans understandably have not. Research apes also have been been deprived of similar social interactions that humans are exposed to, potentially stunting their abilities. Physical testing procedures in the studies themselves also differed between the species, favoring humans.

The takeaway? The scientific literature is almost certainly underestimating the cognitive abilities of chimpanzees and other apes compared to our own. In the near future, we may learn of new mental realms where chimpanzees rule.

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