Not Always a Good Bet

Now we have officially moved into winter we are watching the weather forecasts to see how the snowfall is doing in the mountains. Our skis, snowboards and snowshoes are ready so that we can play in the powder.

Many of us are timid and stick to well-worn trails and bunny slopes, but there is a percentage that craves more excitement and a passion for the adrenaline rush of taking risky choices. Those of us who are eminently sensible are happy to pay hard earned cash to watch the antics.

The question that pops up in the minds of enquiring evolutionary anthropologists is what is the benefit (evolutionwise – cashwise it’s clear from the size of the audience) and do other great ape species indulge in the same game. That was the question asked by Haun, Nawroth and Call (1). They took chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas and got them to play a choice game in which they could win bits of banana. A far cry from steep ski slopes but easier to organize.

There was a safe option of always getting a small piece, but they could make another choice that gave them a one in four chance of a big piece. The candidates had a tendency to go for the risky option unless the size of the safe option became a worthwhile size. Well, nobody likes to get shortchanged and I wouldn’t want to say “tough luck” to an irritated gorilla.

In summary, our great ape friends were more likely to take the risky option than us humans. All good casino candidates, I guess. The biggest gamblers were the Orangutans and Chimpanzees. Gorillas were more conservative, but our Bonobo friends were the most risk averse.

It is interesting that Bonobos tend to be rather better behaved in general and maybe they are just being more polite and leaving the bigger portion for someone else.


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