Grapes for Apes

Shona Duguid has to wait. This time for the testing apparatus to be adapted, one iteration closer to the final setup. Last time for the chimps.

Shona is a doctoral student in Mike Tomasello’s Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology. Her thesis is part of a project where they compare if and how children and chimpanzees are able to coordinate tasks. „I am the chimp person in this project“, she says. And this is her last set of tests before she can finish her PhD.

The setup seems simple enough: An apparatus that dispenses grapes. A chimp on each side. Chimps love grapes. To get them, they push buttons. Simple.

But of course, you can’t tell that to a chimp. At least not in so many words. You have to „tell“ them the chimp way – which easily takes a couple of weeks.

Shona and her assistent install the testing apparatus

You start with the basics. One button, one chimp, one human on the other side. Once they get the button-grape-connection, it’s one chimp only, with access to both sides: two buttons need pushing to release the grape – one on this side, one on the other. Then: eight buttons (four on each side), one chimp, but no food. At last: four buttons, two chimps. If (and only if) both choose the same button there will be grapes.

Testing the testing apparatus

To get through this process with fourteen chimps, you need all the zen of a buddhist monk. And then some.

They spit at you.
They completely ignore you.
They take your apparatus apart.

They don’t come in.
They don’t go out.
They play every trick in the book to snatch an extra grape.

They are not in the mood.
They are still not in the mood.
They are eager to play.

They look at you as if you are out of your mind.

The training phase is over now, and Shona is beginning to work with the complete apparatus. The first test didn’t go so well. Which is not unusual. „There will be a learning curve“, she says. „Hopefully.“ And after moment: „Or not.“

Many more grapes to go




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