Exeter, Devon UK • Jul 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
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We’re Number One

Hannah Rawlinson-Smith discusses the news that monkeys may beat humans in some decision-making
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Image: Pixabay

We’re Number One

Hannah Rawlinson-Smith discusses the news that monkeys may beat humans in some decision-making

Monkeys are our closest relatives, but we are streaks ahead in terms of brain power, right?  A study pitting humans against monkeys found that monkeys make more efficient decisions than humans when faced with the same task, so maybe we’re not number one after all.

Monkeys make more efficient decisions that humans when faced with the same task

We use past experiences to short-cut decision making.  This increases the speed of problem solving, as a choice is made without considering every possible option.  However, this can lead us to make inefficient choices, like taking the familiar route to work rather than take Google’s suggestion of a shorter alternative.  The usual route requires less brain power, speeding up the decision-making process, but costs us in the long-run – in this example, an extra 10 minutes in bed in the morning.

Researchers investigated this phenomenon, termed ‘cognitive set’ bias, by teaching humans and monkeys the sequence of square, square then triangle which, when completed correctly, resulted in a reward.  Then, the option to press the triangle right away was introduced.  As pressing the triangle is the end goal, presenting it alongside the squares introduces a shortcut.

Remarkably, 70 percent of the monkeys took the shortcut right away, whereas only two percent of human participants identified the alternative route.  This suggests monkeys explore alternative options more readily than humans.  ‘Working memory’ is the amount of brain power available for making decisions.  Monkeys have a limited working memory compared to humans, perhaps explaining why they take the simpler shortcut rather than the complicated sequence they have been taught. 

Lower susceptibility to cognitive set bias is advantageous for monkeys, as they need to forage for food and explore their environment.  For humans, however, bias prevents us from being overwhelmed with information from our environment which paralyses us with choice.  In day-to-day life, these biases do not put us at a significant disadvantage – losing those extra 10 minutes in bed isn’t the end of the world. 

Bias prevents us from being overwhelmed with information

However, there is concern about the effects of cognitive set bias skewing decision making in politics, healthcare, and economics.  For example, a doctor may mistakenly diagnose a patient with a common disease because it is seen frequently, rather than conducting further tests to see if they have a rarer disease with the same symptoms. 

Biases can prevent us from making the best decisions, so how can we change our thinking to make better judgements?  Maybe monkeys have the answer.

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