Do monkeys know when they need to 'Google it'?

July 8, 2016 by Bill Hathaway, Yale University
Do monkeys know when they need to ‘Google it’?
Credit: Alyssa Arre

Are humans the only animal that knows what they don't know? A new study by researchers at Yale and Harvard shows that rhesus monkeys also spontaneously recognize when they are ignorant and need to seek out more information.

"Metacognition—the ability to think about our own thoughts— has long been considered a hallmark of being human," said Laurie Santos, Yale psychologist and senior author of the study published online July 7 in the journal Psychological Science. "We all know the difference between feeling like we know something for sure and feeling like we're not all that certain. We know when we need to Google something."

But do other animals recognize their own uncertainty? Previous studies have shown that animals can recognize when they are uncertain, but the animals had a period of exposure to the experimental problem.

"But that is different from what we see in humans," said Alexandra Rosati, an at Harvard and lead author of the study. "We wanted to know if could engage in metacognition on the spot when confronted with a brand-new problem."

Rosati and Santos came up with an ingenious way to test whether free-ranging rhesus monkeys spontaneously know when they need more information. They gave monkeys a chance to search for food placed into one of two cylinders, arranged in a V-shape. When monkeys saw which cylinder the food went into, they quickly ran to that spot to retrieve the food. But when monkeys weren't sure which container had the food, they instead ran to the junction of the two cylinders where they could check the contents of both before they committed to searching one container. They rarely approached the center if it was not possible to check the other locations in this way.

These results show that monkeys spontaneously used information about their own knowledge states when figuring out how to search for the .

"Our human understanding of when we need more is such a ubiquitous behavior that we never give it a thought," Santos said. "When navigating a new city, we know the difference between knowing where we're going and realizing we need a map. When considering grabbing an umbrella, we already know it's raining or that we need to look outside. Our results hint that monkeys have that same feeling of certainty and uncertainty themselves, and it guides their behavior."

Explore further: Monkeys and humans share staring behavior

Related Stories

Monkeys and humans share staring behavior

May 11, 2016

Following another's gaze is a hallmark of human learning and socialization from infancy to old age. Humans change how they follow gazes throughout life, and disruptions in the ability to follow someone's gaze are warning ...

Monkeys express spite toward those who have more

January 8, 2016

Monkeys, like humans, will take the time and effort to punish others who get more than their fair share, according to a study conducted at Yale. In fact, they can act downright spiteful.

Unlike humans, monkeys aren't fooled by expensive brands

December 2, 2014

In at least one respect, Capuchin monkeys are smarter than humans—they don't assume a higher price tag means better quality, according to a new Yale study appearing in the open-access journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Monkeys get more selective with age

June 23, 2016

As people get older, they become choosier about how they spend their time and with whom they spend it. Now, researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on June 23 find, based on a series of experimental ...

Study validates monkey model of visual perception

August 25, 2015

A new study from The Journal of Neuroscience shows that humans and rhesus monkeys have very similar abilities in recognizing objects "at a glance," validating the use of this animal model in the study of human visual perception. ...

Monkeys can learn to see themselves in the mirror

January 8, 2015

Unlike humans and great apes, rhesus monkeys don't realize when they look in a mirror that it is their own face looking back at them. But, according to a report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on January 8, that ...

Recommended for you

After a reset, Сuriosity is operating normally

February 23, 2019

NASA's Curiosity rover is busy making new discoveries on Mars. The rover has been climbing Mount Sharp since 2014 and recently reached a clay region that may offer new clues about the ancient Martian environment's potential ...

Study: With Twitter, race of the messenger matters

February 23, 2019

When NFL player Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice, the ensuing debate took traditional and social media by storm. University of Kansas researchers have ...

Researchers engineer a tougher fiber

February 22, 2019

North Carolina State University researchers have developed a fiber that combines the elasticity of rubber with the strength of a metal, resulting in a tougher material that could be incorporated into soft robotics, packaging ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jul 08, 2016
antigorilicle google's up his gobbled gook everytime

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.