Most of us have played the classic school yard game of ‘Rock – Paper – Scissors’ and so we all know the rules. Paper beats rock, rock beats scissors but scissors come back around to beat paper. This quick and simple game is actually a type of transverse pattern, which simply means it is circular and that all elements come back around (the diagram below will help to understand this).
Transverse patterning has been seen in chimps, pigeons and even rats as well as humans. It’s significant because it requires the animal to make decisions based on what is correct rather than what they know isn’t correct. This patterning can be useful as similar mental processes are needed in building relationships, increasing knowledge and general problem solving.
As previously mentioned the game is very simple, but would it be possible for chimps, our closest living relatives, to learn how to play, and if so, how well do they learn when compared to a human child?
An investigation took a group of chimpanzees and a group of children to test this using computer controlled tasks.
To teach the chimps the rules of the game they were presented with each pairing in stages, starting with paper and rock, therefore, learning that paper will always beat rock. This was then followed with rock always beating scissors and, to complete the circular pattern, scissors beating paper.
An almost identical study was repeated with children of learning age, approximately ages three to six. These trials differed as the chimps were passed a juvenile learning stage, but this didn’t stop the children learning the patterns more rapidly than the chimps in all cases.
The chimps however, whilst they had some difficulties in finalising the circularity of the game, were still able to learn the relationships between the different elements and use them in decision making.
There was some variation between the children across the age range, as they got older they were able to learn the patters at a much faster pace and make the associations quicker. Interestingly, the children learnt the rules of the game by changing their response immediately after being wrong, whereas the chimps took a little longer to make this association.
Whilst it may have taken and average of 307 trials to teach them (compared with just six for children), who would have thought that eventually, a Chimpanzee could learn to play one of our most common playground games? I don’t know about anyone else but I’d love to have a game with a chimp.
Do you think they’d understand ‘best of three’?