Even chimpanzees prepare like us for future scenarios

Even chimpanzees prepare like us for future scenarios

Our cognitive adaptation allows us to plan for the future without orienting our choices on the basis of a single possibility. Now a study shows it's not just a human trait

Every day, we experience the uncertainty of our future trying to better prepare ourselves for those scenarios that we consider possible and most probable. Very often, however, we act in such a way as not to orientate our choices on the basis of a single possibility, but trying to ensure that, in the face of mutually exclusive alternatives that we imagine may occur, our behavior may result in the maximum benefit or minimum damage for us. This type of cognitive adaptation is very important: in the face of an indeterminate future, in fact, it is what allows us to plan our actions in the best possible way, even when it is not possible to reduce all possible futures to just one.

Until now, the ability to take into account the possibility of several alternative future events, and adapt one's behavior accordingly, seemed to be an exclusively human characteristic, absent even in the most similar to us (among those still living) primates. Thanks to an interesting research work whose results have just been published, however, it has been possible to demonstrate that we are no longer alone in mentally representing possible future different scenarios, adapting accordingly: even chimpanzees, in fact, are capable of do the same, which is consistent with the evolution of this cognitive ability before about 5 million years ago (the time when it is estimated that the ancestors of our species and chimpanzees separated).

Working in a Ugandan forest, a natural environment where chimpanzees run free, the study authors placed individual chimpanzees in front of two tilting platforms, each with a piece of food on top. The first version of the experiment used an opaque cylindrical tube above one of the platforms, through which the team would drop a rock. If the chimpanzee did not intervene, the food fell as a result of the blow with the rock; however, if he stabilized the platform with his hands, preventing the food from falling onto the corresponding platform, this was given to him as a reward. In this scenario, after a learning period, the 15 chimpanzees tested only ever stabilized on the platform they knew the rock would hit.

Next, in a second experiment the researchers used an opaque tube in the shape of an inverted Y, with an outlet above each platform, to drop the rock. In this experiment, the chimpanzees could not predict which platform would be hit by the rock dropped into the tube. After a learning period, 13 out of 15 chimpanzees stabilized both platformswaiting for the rock, thus receiving the reward for avoiding the falling food from the hit platform.

In humans, the ability to consider alternative and mutually exclusive future scenarios appears to develop earlier than language; the fact that adult chimpanzees, and therefore presumably one of our common ancestor, possess the same ability, supports the precocity of this cognitive trait, evidently particularly adaptive for our and other species. And so, one of the skills that underlies our planning for the future, in order to prepare ourselves without making a choice bound to a single scenario, is also present in chimpanzees. Who knows why, due to a pandemic, climate change or other conditions, all capable of giving rise to different and alternative future scenarios, we behave much worse than them, adapting our actions to the single future that we would rather see coming, rather than to many possible events.

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