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Optimistic apes like a gamble


Chimpanzees and bonobos tend to look on the bright side of life.

If we offered you two pieces of fruit, or a handful of nuts, which would you pick? Okay, fine, just imagine for this piece that you don’t have a nut allergy.

Okay, now what if we sometimes reduced that to one piece of fruit without warning?

That’s the basis for a study that has come up with an interesting revelation: our nearest biological relative, the humble ape, shares humanity’s penchant for gambling, and a inherent ‘glass half full’ optimism. Aww.

Biologists at Duke University discovered that bonobos and chimpanzees will gamble their food if they think there’s a chance they’ll get more, but won’t risk it if they think they’ll lose, even if the odds are exactly the same. They did this over two experiments: first offering two pieces of fruit with a 50% chance of only getting half the promised portion, and the second time with one piece of fruit but a 50% chance of getting a bonus piece. Each time, they could avoid the gamble and take a consistent ‘safe’ handful of nuts.

The scientists found that both bonobos and chimpanzees were more likely to take the single piece of fruit, than the two pieces, despite the fact that – on average – they’d end up with just one piece of fruit either way.

“People tend to prefer something more when you accentuate its positive attributes than when you highlight its negative attributes, even when the options are equal,” Christopher Krupenye, co-author of the upcoming Duke paper told Science Blog.

“Historically, researchers thought these kinds of biases must be a product of human culture, or the way we’re socialized, or our experience with financial markets. But the fact that chimps and bonobos, our closest living primate relatives, exhibit the same biases suggests they’re deeply rooted in our biology,” he continued.

“That means it’s very difficult to overcome these biases, but it is possible to create environments that might help us make better choices,” he added.

So apes like a gamble, but only when they think they’ll win, but another way of looking at the research is that apes have a ‘glass half full’ attitude towards life, preferring pleasant bonuses to unexpected disappointment. Or that they’re as easily manipulated by advertising spin as the rest of us. Depends on how you frame it – but we can tell you which version these optimistic apes would prefer to believe.

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