Chimpanzees are better at computer games than children, scientists claim

To compare the cognitive abilities of humans and chimps, scientists pitted them against each other in a virtual reality maze game.

A young chimpanzee looks in to the distance.
A young chimpanzee looks in to the distance.

In an experiment that seems worryingly like a prelude to Planet of the Apes-like situation, a chimpanzee has significantly outperformed humans in a computer game.

To compare the cognitive abilities of chimps and humans, researchers at the University of Michigan-Dearborn in the US challenged human and chimp participants to complete a complex maze in a virtual-reality computer game.

The participants were split evenly by gender, and comprised of twelve children aged between three and 12 years old, four adults, and four adult chimps from the Language Research Centre at Georgia State University.

To make their findings, scientists recorded how much distance the gamers covered before completing the maze – not before coaxing both human and chimp participants with bookstore vouchers, stickers, and snacks, respectively.

In the game, players navigated through alleys and around brick walls to find the goal. A blue square would tell the player they were following the right path, whereas a brown triangle signalled they were going the wrong way.

“Everything about testing is easier on a computer screen. You have so much more control, especially in non-human animals. You can’t just take them to a mall and say, ‘Go from here to there,’” Dorothy Fragaszy, the director of the Primate Cognition and Behavior Laboratory at the University of Georgia in Athens, told Fox News. She had worked with all of the chimps in the virtual-reality study before, but was not a part of the study itself.

During the most difficult round, a chimp called Panzee worked out a significantly shorter route around the maze in comparison any of the children, and even some of the human adult participants.

“The humans would ask me for answers, but I would tell them, 'I can’t give the chimps answers,'” said Francine Dolins, a primatologist at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and first author on the study, which was published online in the American Journal of Primatology.

Dolins believes that the Panzee’s success reflects a trend in captive chimps.

While an ape raised in the Language Research Centre is well-fed from birth and is not pressured to compete for food in the same way as a wild chimp, Dolins believe the study reflects behaviour retained from the wild.

In their natural habitat, male chimps search for food in groups, and attack unwary females who are forced to find more conspicuous sources for their food.

“In the small number of studies I’ve done, females do better than males” on goal-oriented maze and puzzle games, she said.

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