Unlike many human children, chimpanzees are happy to take turns when it comes to playing computer games.
This became evident when a team led by Christopher Flynn Martin of the Department of Life Sciences at Indianapolis Zoo in US set out to see whether mother-offspring pairs of chimps would learn to cooperate when asked to complete computer tasks that required input from both.
Not only did they do so, they did so spontaneously, without human coaching.
In a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports, Martin and his colleagues describe using three pairs of chimps to test a computer-based task that required turn-taking.
All the chimps had previously become proficient at the solo version of the game, which required ordering numbers in ascending order (and receiving a small food reward for each successfully completed step).
For the two-player version, the numbers were divided between two screens. The members of each chimp pair had to take turns to ensure the numbers ended up in the correct order.
The researchers report that all the chimps got the idea right from the start, and achieved high levels of accuracy from the first attempt onwards.
“Our research examined the abilities of our closest evolutionary relatives, chimpanzees, to coordinate their behaviour while completing a computerised puzzle in stages,” explains co-author Dora Biro from Oxford University in the UK.
“We showed that extended bouts of turn-taking emerged spontaneously in the subjects, enabling them to solve the complex coordination problem effectively.”
The results showed that in two-player mode the younger chimps were much faster to respond to cues than their mother, and made fewer mistakes. However, in solo mode the reverse was the case.
The researchers say the results are potentially useful for understanding the evolutionary basis of turn-taking – a strategy crucial to tasks that require cooperation. They might also indicate the presence of some sophisticated cognition going on in the apes – a level of understanding that, oddly enough, may put them on a par with saxophone players.
“Besides turn-taking, our task may also provide insights into abilities for cognitive perspective-taking — in other words, the capacity to improve coordination by mentally putting yourself in someone else’s place,” says Biro.
“Brain studies have shown that this is a skill that musicians use while performing duets that require them to take turns. Whether our chimpanzee subjects made use of such perspective-taking capacities during solving the numerical turn-taking task is an interesting open question for future research.
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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