If you’re trying to outwit the competition, it might be better to have been born a chimpanzee, according to a study which found that chimps at the Kyoto University Primate Research Institute consistently outperform humans in simple contests drawn from game theory.
The study, led by Colin Camerer, Professor of Behavioral Economics at Caltech, and appearing in the journal Scientific Reports, involved a simple game of hide-and-seek researchers call the Inspection Game.
In the game, two players are set up back to back, each facing a computer screen.
To start the game, each player pushes a circle on the monitor and then selects one of two blue boxes on the left or right side of the screen.
After both players have chosen left or right, the computer shows each player her opponent’s choice.
This continues through 200 iterations per game.
The goal of the players in the hiding role — the mismatchers — is to choose the opposite of their opponent’s selection.
Players in the seeking role — the matchers — win if they make the same choices as their opponent.
Winning players receive a reward, a chunk of apple for the chimps or a small coin for the humans.
If players are to win repeatedly, they have to accurately predict what their opponent will do next, anticipating their strategy.
The game, though simple, replicates a situation that is common in the everyday lives of both chimps and humans.
An example from human life: An employee who wants to work only when her employer is watching and prefers to play video games when unobserved.
To better conceal her secret video game obsession, the employee must learn the patterns of the employer’s behaviour such as when they might or might not be around to check up on the worker.
Employers who suspect their employees are up to no good need to be unpredictable, popping in randomly to see what the staff is doing on company time.
“The nice thing about the game theory used in this study is that it allows you to boil down all of these situations to their strategic essence,” says Caltech graduate student and coauthor Rahul Bhui.
However well you play the Inspection Game, if your opponent is also playing strategically, there is a limit to how often you can win.
That limit, game theorists say, is best described by the Nash equilibrium, named for mathematician John Forbes Nash, winner of the 1994 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences whose life and career provided the inspiration for the Academy Award–winning 2001 film A Beautiful Mind.
In the first part of this study, coauthors Chris Martin and Tetsuro Matsuzawa compared the game play of six common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and 16 Japanese students, always facing off against their own species, in the Kyoto research facility.
The humans behaved as expected based on previous experiments. They played reasonably well, slowly learning to predict opponent choices but they did not play optimally. They ended up somewhat off the Nash equilibrium.
The performance of the chimps was far more impressive. They learned the game rapidly and nearly attained the predictions of the Nash theorem for optimal play.
A couple of simple explanations could account for the ability of these chimpanzees to outperform humans.
These particular chimps had more extensive training at this kind of task as well as more experience with the equipment used at the Research Institute than the human subjects did.
The chimps in Kyoto are also related to one another. They played in mother-child pairs and may have had intimate knowledg of the sequence of choices their opponents would probably make.
Neither explanation seems likely, researchers say. Although the Japanese students may not have had experience with the type of touch screens employed in the Kyoto facility, they certainly had encountered video games and touch screens.
The players also knew each other very well prior to the experiments.
Superior chimpanzee performance could be due to excellent short term memory, a strength in chimps.
The past 50 years has seen a divergence of opinion as to how cooperative or competitive humans naturally are.
It is clear that wherever humans sit on the cooperative/competitive scale, common chimpanzees are more competitive with one another than we are.
Language is probably also a key factor. In the Inspection Game experiments, humans were not allowed to speak with one another, despite language being key to human strategic interaction.
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