Monkeys Better than Humans with Cognitive Flexibility

Humans store a lot of information they need to learn into long-term memory through the process of rote-memory (like learning the commute route to get to work).  This creates a sort of “cognitive mindset” that tends to remain static. As it turns out, that process makes humans less flexible when it comes to being cognitively flexible and seeing/incorporating novel, creative ways to solve problems (such as better alternative routes to commute).  Monkeys, as it turns out, are actually better than humans in this regard.

Study overview

The recent study found that capuchin and rhesus macaque monkeys were significantly less susceptible than humans to “cognitive set” bias when presented a chance to switch to a more efficient option. The research results supported earlier studies with fellow primates, baboons and chimpanzees, who also showed a greater willingness to use optional shortcuts to earn a treat compared to humans who persisted in using a familiar learned strategy despite its relative inefficiency.

Study methodology

The test involved establishing a specific strategy to lead to a solution. Through trial and error using a computer, monkeys and humans had to follow a pattern by pushing a striped square then a dotted square and then, when it appeared, a triangle to achieve the goal and receive a reward. For the humans, the reward was either a jingle or points to let them know they got it right. For the monkeys, it was a banana pellet. Wrong results got a brief timeout and no reward.

After the strategy was learned, subsequent trials presented the triangle option immediately without having to push the patterned squares in sequence. All of the monkeys quickly used the shortcut, while 61 percent of the humans did not. In fact, 70 percent of all the monkeys used the shortcut the very first time it was available compared to only one human. (The study involved 56 humans, 22 capuchin and 7 rhesus monkeys.)


Journal Reference:  Julia Watzek, Sarah M. Pope, Sarah F. Brosnan. Capuchin and rhesus monkeys but not humans show cognitive flexibility in an optional-switch task. Scientific Reports, 2019; 9 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-49658-0