Monkeys Beat Humans in Cognitive Flexibility

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

monkey adaptations to environment

Story at-a-glance -

  • Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to adapt your behaviors in response to a changing environment
  • In the case of cognitive flexibility, monkeys may be more advanced, readily adapting to changes in their environment in ways superior to humans
  • In a study measuring cognitive flexibility, 70% of monkeys used the shortcut right away while only 39% of humans used the short cut at all
  • In another study, researchers looked into the experience of social adversity on monkeys, revealing that it may impact them on a cellular level
  • Social adversity likely affects monkeys and humans similarly, such that it can strongly affect future health, gene expression and immune function

Cognitive flexibility refers to the ability to adapt your behaviors in response to a changing environment.1 It’s a useful skill, one that allows for efficient work and is associated with many benefits in humans, including higher resilience to stress, increased creativity, better reading abilities and better quality of life.2

Sometimes, however, humans may find it challenging to be cognitively flexible, preferring instead to complete tasks the way they always have — even if there might be a better way. Monkeys share many cognitive similarities to humans, but in the case of cognitive flexibility they may be more advanced, readily adapting to changes in their environment in ways superior to humans, according to research published in Scientific Reports.3

“Learned rules help us accurately solve many problems,” the researchers noted, “but by blindly following a strategy, we sometimes fail to find more efficient alternatives. Previous research found that humans are more susceptible to this ‘cognitive set’ bias than other primates …”4

Monkeys Show Better Cognitive Flexibility Than Humans

In a study involving 60 humans, seven rhesus macaques and 22 capuchin monkeys, participants were tasked with selecting three icons in a sequence, after which they received a reward. After doing the task for 96 trials, the rules changed, and the task could be completed in a much more straightforward way — simply by selecting the final icon.

Humans, however, were slow on the uptake, sticking to the slower, three in a row sequence much more often than the monkeys, which used the shortcut significantly more often than humans. “Humans used the shortcut more in this new, easier task than in previous work, but started using it significantly later than the monkeys,” the researchers wrote.5

Specifically, 70% of the monkeys used the shortcut right away while only 39% of the humans used the short cut at all during the study.6 The researchers explained:7

“We found that capuchin and rhesus monkeys successfully used the shortcut at high rates, soon after it first became available. In doing so, they join the ranks of baboons and chimpanzees in outperforming humans, who tend to stick with the less efficient but familiar learned strategy (i.e., they show a cognitive set bias).

Furthermore, using the shortcut was indeed more beneficial, as it both increased accuracy and decreased response times in all species.”

One reason for the difference could be due to availability of working memory. Humans typically have more available working memory, in which to juggle multiple thoughts in our minds, than monkeys.

As such, the monkeys may have found it more challenging to adhere to the more complicated learned rule and instead were more eager to find a simpler solution. It’s also possible that the monkeys may have been more motivated by the food reward they received, making them more likely to seek out new, more efficient ways to solve the task at hand and thus get fed.8

Social Stress Changes Monkey Genes

In other research that may shed light on how chronic stress affects humans, researchers looked into the experience of social adversity on monkeys, revealing that it may impact them on a cellular level.9 Social standing is important in rhesus monkeys, with more dominant individuals getting more food and space and sometimes bossing around or bullying other subordinate monkeys.

For the study, monkeys recently introduced to the group were considered subordinate to the more senior members. When the researchers compared the monkeys’ immune response to bacteria and viruses, those who had been subjected to past social stress had a lower immune response compared to monkeys with a higher social status.

In fact, the study found that social rank could be linked to changes in the expression of 3,745 genes, suggesting that past emotional “baggage” can have a lasting mark on the monkeys’ health — a phenomenon that’s also likely in humans.10 According to study author Jenny Tung of Duke University, "Our results suggest that your body remembers having low social status in the past [...] And it holds on to that memory much more than it would if things had been really great … We all have baggage."11

The study reveals that social adversity likely affects monkeys and humans similarly, such that it can strongly affect future health, gene expression and immune function. Scientists continue to pinpoint the ways monkeys process the world differently from humans, such as in the case of being cognitively flexible, but in the case of social adversity, it “gets under the skin over long time spans” in both humans and monkeys alike.12