Cognitive Flexibility: Monkeys Shown to Outperform Humans

Shirley Amy
October 24, 2019

“I think we’re less and less surprised when primates outsmart humans sometimes”

According to interesting research carried out by psychology researchers at Georgia State University: “when it comes to being willing to explore more efficient options to solving a problem, monkeys exhibit more cognitive flexibility than humans”. So can these adorable animals actually teach us something? Let’s take a look at the study, and find out.


Julia Watzek, a Georgia State psychology graduate, was the lead author of this fascinating study. It was published in the journal, Nature Scientific Reports, and set out to  highlight the way in which rhesus macaque and capuchin monkeys are substantially less amenable to “cognitive set” prejudice than humans, if given the opportunity to change to a more efficient alternative. Watzek notes that, as humans: “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” [1].

Results Supported by Earlier Studies

The findings were in line with older research into chimpanzees, baboons, and fellow primates, all of whom displayed: “a greater willingness to use optional shortcuts to earn a treat compared to humans who persisted in using a familiar learned strategy despite its relative inefficiency”.

A Fun Strategy

This new research which comprised 56 human-adults, 22 capuchin, and 7 rhesus monkeys, involved the use of a computer, and trial and error. Both humans and monkeys were made to follow a certain pattern by first: “pushing a striped square then a dotted square and then, when it appeared, a triangle to achieve the goal and receive a reward”.

The rewards, which let the animal and human participants know they got it right, comprised: a banana pellet for the monkeys, and points or a jingle for the monkeys. If the results were not correct, then the subjects had no reward, and were given a short time out.

Cognitive Monkey Power

Once all the subjects were familiar with the program, consequent trials delivered the triangle choice straight away, without the necessity to push the patterned squares in succession. The results showed that: “all of the monkeys quickly used the shortcut, while 61 percent of the humans did not. In fact, 70 percent of all the monkeys used the shortcut the very first time it was available compared to only one human”. Moreover, when the same experiment was taken to Namibia, Africa: in tests of visitors to Zoo Atlanta: “children 7-10 were four times more likely than adults to use the shortcut, but still more than half continued to use the learned strategy”.

In commenting on the overall study results, Watzek remarked that with humans: “there’s a heavy reliance on rote learning and doing it the way you were taught and to specifically not take the shortcut. More of the humans do take the shortcut after seeing a video of somebody taking the shortcut, but about 30 percent still don’t”. Further, in a different variation of the test, the human subjects were told that they should not be worried about trying out something different; but the results indicated that while a higher percentage of them did switch to the shortcut, many of them still avoided it .

Shirley Amy

Shirley Amy is a Holistic Health Specialist and professional writer who's published 4 books. Her  interests include optimum wellness, mental health, fitness, and positive lifestyle change. She holds University and College qualifications in the fields of Health Science, Nutrition, Mental Health, Fitness, Holistic Therapy and Aromatherapy.

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