Humans or Monkeys: Who is More Curious?

Curiosity experiment

This great ape can either choose the cup with visible contents or a covered one whose contents it does not know. © Sánchez-Amaro, Rossano/ CC by 4.0

We humans are known to be extremely curious, but do we outperform our closest relatives, the great apes, with this curiosity? An experiment has now shown that we are much more willing to explore than chimpanzees, gorillas and the like. If children have the choice between a transparent cup that visibly contains a reward and an opaque cup, they opt for the "Mystery Box" much more often ' than the great apes. For the scientists, this is an indication that we are more risk-averse with uncertainty than apes.

From an evolutionary point of view, curiosity is extremely important so that living beings can learn, get to know their environment in detail and survive in it as best as possible. Some scholars even suggest that it was human curiosity that allowed us to expand early out of Africa and develop diverse cultures. But this exploratory spirit is somewhat muted in some of our closest relatives. For example, it is known that orangutans are generally not very curious about new objects. Does that mean that great apes are generally less curious than we are?

Gambling for grapes and stickers

Alejandro Sánchez-Amaro from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and Federico Rossano from the University of California San Diego have now for the first time subjected the curiosity of humans and apes to a direct comparison. Three to five-year-old children competed against adult apes. The measure of curiosity was a choice between two inverted cups: one transparent with a visible reward and one opaque with no indication of the contents.

The chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans were rewarded with grapes and the children with stickers. While the transparent cup contained a single bunch of grapes or a sticker, several were hidden in the "Mystery Box". At first, however, neither the children nor the monkeys knew what was under the opaque cup. Only after one round of blindly made decisions were both groups allowed to see what was hidden in there and then decide again in a second round based on this knowledge.

Children are much more curious than apes

The result: During the blind passage, the children decided much more often in favor of the unknown and against the certain reward than the great apes, as the scientists report. According to this, between 77 and 85 percent of them chose the “Mystery Box” at least once without first knowing what was hidden underneath. Among the great apes, only 24 percent made this decision. "However, after we uncovered the contents of the opaque cups, which contained a greater reward than the 'safe' transparent cup, great apes also overcame their initial risk aversion," say Sánchez-Amaro and Rossano.

After this learning experience, more than 88 percent of the great apes and children chose the opaque cup with the larger reward at least once. Interestingly, while the children continued to experiment wildly, the opaque cup was now the preferred choice of the great apes. According to the researchers, this behavior could be due to the fact that the monkeys had now clearly linked the "mystery box" to a larger reward, while the children continued to think that this does not necessarily have to be under the opaque cup every time.

Overall, Sánchez-Amaro and Rossano see the experiment's results as evidence that humans are more curious than apes. This is supported above all by the fact that the children, unlike the great apes, explored the unsafe option even in the face of complete uncertainty. So they were more motivated to explore the unknown and less risk-averse overall. "We therefore argue that the differences between children and great apes lie primarily in the motivational disposition to explore the unknown," the researchers write.

Source: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig; Specialist article: PLOS ONE, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0285946

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