Curious children, less curious apes

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Children choose a "mystery box" more often than apes, but after a glimpse of a larger reward from the uncertain option, great apes show more curiosity

Representation for study 3 in which apes can either choose the transparent cup a
Representation for study 3 in which apes can either choose the transparent cup and obtain a grape (the usual outcome during the pre-test phase) or choose the opaque cup and obtain two grapes (the usual outcome during the test phase). © Sánchez-Amaro, Rossano, CC-BY 4.0

Humans are curious creatures. We are motivated to explore and investigate mysterious or unknown objects, but do other great apes share this innate curiosity? Researchers Alejandro Sánchez-Amaro at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and Federico Rossano at the University of California San Diego in the United States set out to investigate and found that children are more curious to explore the unknown than great apes. Yet, after a glimpse of the potential rewards, apes learn to investigate uncertain options.

The researchers tested whether great apes and human children would choose an unknown option over a visible reward. In a series of studies, they asked adult chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans to choose between two up-turned plastic cups covering some grapes. One cup was transparent and contained a small reward, while the other was opaque, hiding a larger reward. Human children aged three to five years old were given a similar task, with stickers as a reward.

On average, children were more likely to forego the certain reward in favor of the mysterious one - 85 percent and 77 percent of children chose the opaque cup at least once during the fourth and fifth studies respectively, compared to 24 percent of apes in the third study. When the hidden reward was briefly revealed and participants were allowed to change their choice, over 88 percent of apes and children chose the opaque cup with the larger reward at least once.

Comparing curiosity in children and great apes

The study is the first to compare curiosity in human children and great apes using the same study set-up. The results suggest that children may be more motivated to explore the unknown, or less risk-averse than great apes, the authors say. However, after learning about the rewards of exploring uncertainty, apes quickly applied this knowledge to future scenarios.

The authors add: "In this comparative set of studies, we explored whether children and non-human great apes would be curious to forego 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 than the great apes when no other information was available. Only after we unveiled the content of alternative opaque cups, which yielded better outcomes than the visible options during an intervention phase, did apes quickly overcome their initial risk aversion towards uncertain options. Children continued engaging in some level of exploration to diversify their options."