Tuesday, October 9, 2007

It's Monkey Tuesday! WooHoo!

Two stories today about cognition and thought in non-human primates.

First is about how chimps play a basic game theory test game more rationally than humans, meaning they tend to maximize their own score better than we do. In the game, one player is given a sum of points and must offer any portion of it to the other player. If the other player accepts the offer, the transaction takes place. If the other player rejects, both players get zero. The only incentive to reject an offer is to punish the opponent for offering a small amount. Humans punish, chimps do not.

This looks like it could mean two things: one is that chimps simply aren't as highly developed in their cognitive skills as humans, and they cannot understand a concept as complex as punishment, or think ahead to future iterations of the game. Second, the social life of a chimp is much different from ours. They just don't have the complex relationships and social structures that humans do, but it isn't because of a simple brain, they just don't work that way. Bonobos have a social structure closer to our own, I would love to see the same test run on Bonobos.

Next is a brilliant study done on Baboons and their thought processes. Using recorded sounds to simulate normal (predictable) and abnormal (surprising) social interactions, researchers can observe how a baboon reacts to each and determine the level of understanding, and sometimes the actual process of comprehension. The results seem to show that baboons are able to parse information in much the same way that we do when we comprehend language. However, they lack the software for the reverse - turning complex thoughts into meaningful sounds.


Dave Foree said...

I hope you don't mind me commenting out of the blue - I've been reading your blog for some time & think it's about time I reciprocate valid thinking... So thanks, first off, for being entertaining.


Regarding the Ultimatum game study:

I'm more inclined to believe all creatures are as selfish as they need to be. The study said that these chimps "...are unwilling to pay a cost to punish someone they perceive as unfair," which I think doesn't do humans any justice.

Humans are also unwilling to pay a cost to punish - but the difference is that humans expect a return to their altruism, and the benefits are expected to (on some level) equal the costs.

Chimp society - as you suggested - is less complex, and they apparently don't reward altruism as well as humans do. I'd guess this has something to do with "social memory" or something analogous to it...

So it's not that monkeys are more rational, or even more selfish - it's just that the "future iterations of the game" are more metaphorical in human societies, and literal in chimp land. The slight payoff from altruism in chimp-world reflects the slight cost they're willing to pay. Humans, who get higher payoffs from altruism, are willing to pay higher costs...

So humans & chimps are equally rational.


Jolly Bloger said...

Hey Dave, I'm so stoked I have a reader!

Interesting point, it sounds very reasonable. That would mean the game doesn't work so well as a model of natural human interactions because it fails to take into account long-term or more subtle forms of altruistic payoff, but it is a closer approximation of natural chimp interactions. I'd still like to see how bonobos play the game. Your theory would suggest their strategy should be more human than chimp, assuming I'm not mistaken about their social structure (I'm pretty sure I read about chimps vs. bonobos in The Ancestors Tale by Dawkins).