In an international study, children were found to be more curious than monkeys. Researchers Alejandro Sánchez-Amaro from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and Federico Rossano from the University of California, San Diego, in the United States, compared human children aged 3 to 5 with adult chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), gorillas (Gorilla gorilla), bonobos (Pan paniscus), and orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus).

The results are published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. To investigate, the researchers examined whether captive great apes and children would choose an unknown option over a visible reward.

The experiments involved asking adult chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans to choose between two overturned plastic cups covering grapes. One cup was transparent and held a small reward, while the other was opaque, hiding a larger reward.

Similarly, human children aged 3 to 5 were given a similar task, with stickers as rewards. On average, children were more likely to forgo the certain reward in favor of the mysterious one: 85% and 77% of children chose the opaque cup at least once during the fourth and fifth studies, respectively, compared to 24% of monkeys in the third study.

When the hidden reward was briefly revealed, and participants were allowed to change their choice, over 88% of both monkeys and children chose the opaque cup with the larger reward at least once. The study is the first to compare curiosity in human children and great apes using the same experimental setup. However, after learning the benefits of exploring uncertainty, monkeys quickly applied this knowledge to future scenarios.

The authors add, “In this comparative series of studies, we explored whether children and great apes would be curious enough to give up a visible benefit under a transparent cup to explore an uncertain option under an opaque cup. We found that children were more likely to explore the uncertain option compared to great apes when no other information was available.

Only after revealing the content of the alternative opaque cups, which produced better results than visible options during an intervention phase, did monkeys quickly overcome their initial aversion to risk towards uncertain options. Children continued to engage in a certain level of exploration to diversify their options. Therefore, despite the well-known animated TV show ‘Curious George,’ the results suggest that children might be more motivated to explore the unknown or less risk-averse than great apes, according to the authors.”

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