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Capuchin and Rhesus Monkeys Outsmart Humans When It Comes to Cognitive Flexibility

According to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, when it comes to being willing to explore more efficient options to solving a problem, capuchin monkeys and rhesus macaques exhibit more cognitive flexibility than our own species.

A capuchin monkey. Image credit: Georgia State University.

A capuchin monkey. Image credit: Georgia State University.

As humans, we live in complex environments and inevitably have to rely on imperfect information when we make decisions.

Searching for information takes time, cognitive resources, and can result in errors while we figure out which strategies work and which do not.

But once discovered, learned rules can save us that effort while helping us solve many everyday problems, especially if the environment is predictable. But by blindly following a strategy, sometimes fail to find more efficient alternatives.

“We are a unique species and have various ways in which we are exceptionally different from every other creature on the planet. But we’re also sometimes really dumb,” said Julia Watzek, a graduate student at Georgia State University.

In the new research, capuchin and rhesus macaque monkeys were significantly less susceptible than humans to ‘cognitive set’ bias when presented a chance to switch to a more efficient option.

The study involved 60 humans, 7 rhesus macaques, and 22 capuchin monkeys.

Through trial and error using a computer, monkeys and humans had to follow a pattern by pushing a striped square then a dotted square and then, when it appeared, a triangle to achieve the goal and receive a reward.

For the humans, the reward was either a jingle or points to let them know they got it right. For the monkeys, it was a banana pellet. Wrong results got a brief timeout and no reward.

After the strategy was learned, subsequent trials presented the triangle option immediately without having to push the patterned squares in sequence.

All of the monkeys quickly used the shortcut, while 61% of the humans did not. In fact, 70% of all the monkeys used the shortcut the very first time it was available compared to only one human.

“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% still don’t. 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.”

The study illustrates how humans can suffer from learned biases that can lead us to make inefficient decisions and miss opportunities.

Often, sticking with what’s familiar and proven — like a commuting route to work — isn’t a big deal with a low cost over an alternative. Other times, using inefficient, biased or outdated practices could have far-reaching consequences.

“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.”


Julia Watzek et al. 2019. Capuchin and rhesus monkeys but not humans show cognitive flexibility in an optional-switch task. Scientific Reports 9, article number: 13195; doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-49658-0

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