Monkey See, Monkey Do? – Vicarious Learning

Many, many species learn by watching their parents or peer group. They learn what to eat, what not to eat, when to hide, or when to hightail it to the hills. But what about learning by watching other species? When it comes to monkeys, is it a case of monkey see, monkey do or is it just a case of monkeying around?

Apparently, the received wisdom is that monkeys don’t learn from watching people, but this is now being challenged by some new experiments. Falcone et al from Sapienza U have been busy watching monkeys watching them (1).

The monkeys were a pair of rhesus monkeys who were given a multiple-choice test containing 33 problems for one and 34 problems for the other. As was right and proper, anonymity was preserved.

The test pattern consisted of a monkey watching a human being offered a tray with a pair of objects. There were no clues from the object to the succulent piece of apple that was hidden underneath one of the objects. The human “chose” the one with the apple, revealed it and gobbled it up. This was repeated six times. Out of sight of the monkey, the tray was recharged and then offered to it to make its choice. If correct, it got the apple to eat.

This was done repeatedly with different objects hiding the apple and the monkey’s exam scores reflected the numbers of correct answers. Of course, there were no second try with any incorrect choice.

Each monkey passed their exams with honors as they had scores of 70%+, although neither were quite in the first class category.


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