The Inspection Game is really just a simple digital version of hide-and-go-seek. Two players (in this case, either a pair of chimps or a pair of humans) sit back to back, each facing their own computer screen. The game begins with each competitor pushing a circle on the screen and then selecting one of two blue boxes on the either side (right or left) of the screen.
After both players have chosen left or right, the computer shows each player her opponent's choice. One player is designated the seeker, the other the hider, with the seeker trying to predict their opponent's next move and the hider trying to outthink the seeker. The game goes on like this for 200 turns. Players are incentivized by rewards for successfully hiding or seeking -- humans get coins, chimps get apples.
Inspection Game is inspired by game theory, which suggests that in ideal competition, players should maximize their likelihood of success by anticipating their opponent's move.
Researchers observing the competing chimps and humans were looking for what is called Nash equilibrium, named for mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., which happens when when both players arrive at the optimal strategy and seemingly cancel each other out, excising skill from the game -- much the way games between veteran tic-tac-toe players almost always end in a tie.
In the case of the Inspection Game, Caltech researchers found that humans' were slower to predict their opponents' strategies -- and vice versa -- and that they took longer to reach Nash equilibrium. Chimps, on the other hand, quickly learned the game and their opponents' strategies.
The researchers suggest one reason chimps are superior at such simple strategy games is due to their excellent short term memory. But the scientists suggests a more complex difference between humans and chimps is also at play.
Chimps, they say, are consistently better at basic competition, leading some to suggest that while chimps are prone to competition, humans are keen on cooperation.
"While young chimpanzees hone their competitive skills with constant practice, playing hide-and-seek and wrestling," explained lead researcher Colin Camerer, "their human counterparts shift at a young age from competition to cooperation using our special skill at language."
"We have language and widespread cooperation which (chimps) don't need to worry about, and maybe that impairs our performance in these simple competitions," said Caltech graduate student and study co-author Rahul Bhui. "Maybe these were costs we paid for other abilities."
The chimp versus human Game Theory study was published last week in the online journal Scientific Reports.