Chimps Outsmart Humans When It Comes To Game Theory


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

1165 Chimps Outsmart Humans When It Comes To Game Theory
Chris Martin, Courtesy of Primate Research Institute. Chimpanzees learn simple games better than humans

When looking for a partner at cards you might be advised to check out the local zoo, because it seems that chimpanzees are better at game theory than humans - at least if the games are kept simple.

The video below shows two chimpanzees playing a game at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute. To start, each ape presses either the right or left bar, and is shown a blinking image of what the other player chose. One chimpanzee gets a food reward whenever the choices match, while the other is fed when the choices conflict. The two chimps cannot communicate.




Chris Martin, Courtesy of Primate Research Institute 

Experts in game theory have spent decades working out the best tactics to use in such situations, from options such as replicating the last move your opponent made to much more complex game plans. In this case the researchers note, "Matchers ​predicted behavior should not change across the games. Instead, the behavior of the Mismatcher subjects should change, even though their payoffs do not change." As they note, this is highly counterintuitve to humans. The chimps settled quickly into the Nash equilibrium, the optimum approach for each player to maximize their number of wins, and adjusted their responses when circumstances changed.


John Nash won a Nobel Prize for working the equilibrium out, admittedly for more general cases. Most humans however, have more trouble. When university students and West African villagers also played the game they did rather less well than the chimps, who learned faster than either group of humans. In case you think that people might just not be very motivated by pieces of apple, money was used instead. To keep things level with the chimps, humans were also not told about their opponent's goals.

Revealing their findings in Scientific Reports the researchers speculate the chimp success may be because they have such good short-term memories and pattern recognition skills. They note that “Games are mathematical distillations of the basic action-payoff structures of ecologically valid situations.”

An alternative, even more intriguing, theory is that chimpanzees' natural competitiveness helps them adapt to the games quickly, while humans' cooperative instincts may get in the way. “Experiments also show that chimpanzees are better at competitive tasks than at comparable cooperative ones,” they note. On second thoughts, maybe you don't want a chimp as your partner at cards, but in a one on one contest with a human don't bet on our species.

The work was a collaboration between researchers from Kyoto University and game theory experts at Caltech.