In a recent study by psychologists, chimps and humans played a strategy game, and unexpectedly, the chimps outplayed the humans. Chimps are a scientist’s favorite model to understand human brain and behavior. Chimp and human DNAs overlap by a whopping 99 percent, which makes us closer to chimps than horses to zebras. Yet at some point, we evolved differently. Our behavior and personalities, molded to some extent by our distinct societies, are strikingly different from that of our fellow primates. Chimps are aggressive and status-hungry within their hierarchical societies, knit around a dominant alpha male. We are, perhaps, a little less so. So the question arises whether competitive behavior is hard-wired in them.
In the present study, chimp pairs or human pairs contested in a two-player video game. Each player simply had to choose between left and right squares on a touch-screen panel, while being blind to their rival’s choice. Player A, for instance, won, each time their choices matched, and player B won, if their choices did not. The opponent’s choice was displayed after every selection, and payoffs in the form of apple cubes or money were dispensed to the winner.
In competitive games such as this, like in chess or poker, the players learn to guess their opponent’s moves based on the latter’s past choices, and adjust their own strategy at every step in order to win. An ideal game, eventually, develops a certain pattern. Using a set of mathematical equations, described by game theory, it is easy to predict this pattern on paper. When the players are each making the most strategic choices, the game hovers around what is called an ‘equilibrium’ state.
In the experiment, it turned out that chimps played a near-ideal game, as their choices leaned closer to game theory equilibrium. Whereas, when humans played, their choices drifted farther off from theoretical predictions. Since the game is a test of how much the players recall of their opponent’s choice history, and how cleverly they maneuver by following choice patterns, the results suggest that chimps may have a superior memory and strategy, which help them perform better in a competition, than humans. In other words, chimps seem to have some sort of a knack when fighting peers in a face-off.