OXFORD, England — Taking turns is more than just polite, it’s also a behavior that allows groups to achieve common goals. A fascinating new study shows chimps can take turns in order to complete a relatively complex task, and may shed light on ideas fundamental to the creation of society as we know it.

While taking turns is a simple concept that most people take for granted, the authors of this study draw attention to deeper implications of this basic mental tool that helped create the modern world.

Chimpanzees eating
A new study that showed how chimps take turns to complete a difficult puzzle may help shed light into the evolution of communication.

“Coordinating behavior is an essential component of many social situations and can enable groups of individuals jointly to solve problems. In communication, coordination often takes the form of turn-taking, where one individual takes cues from the other to decide on the timing of their own input. This can allow for the efficient exchange of information,” says the Oxford Department of Zoology’s Dora Biro in a press release.

“Many animals, from insects through birds to primates, take turns during certain types of communication – as do we humans during conversational exchanges,” she explains. “But taking repeated, coordinated turns to achieve a common goal is much less well studied outside the communication domain, despite the possibility that all such behaviors draw on the same underlying cognitive skills for turn-taking.”

To study this behavior in chimpanzees, Biro and fellow researchers devised a clever experiment. The first requirement was having chimps that knew how to count. The chimps involved in the experiment had already been trained to do this by clicking numbers on a touch screen in the proper order.

But, they had never worked together to complete this task.

In order to test if they could do this, the researchers separated two chimps with a piece of glass. Both had access to a touch screen and could see the other’s touchscreen through the glass, but could only reach their own.

The two chimps were then presented with the task of counting to eight in the proper order, but each only had access to half the numbers. For example, one chimp might have the numbers 1, 5, 7 and 8 on its screen while the other chimp had 2, 3, 4 and 6. To count to eight, they would have to take turns inputting the numbers in the proper order.

While all six chimps in the study were able to do this spontaneously with surprising accuracy, the researchers found that the quickest and most accurate chimps were young ones responding to their mothers. However in individual counting tests with one screen, the mothers were quicker.

The researchers believe this suggests the young ones paid more attention to their mother’s responses than visa versa.

“The finding that young chimpanzees more readily took cues from their mothers when looking to take their turns reveals interesting parallels with other aspects of information transmission in chimpanzee societies,” Biro says. “For example, during the learning of tool use by wild chimpanzees, we also see young individuals paying attention to older ones much more than the reverse. This kind of asymmetry has important implications for the direction of information flow – for example, how quickly new innovations in behavior will spread through a group.”

Biro also noted that the study possibly showed that chimps are able to take the perspective of others. This ability to put oneself in another’s place will likely be something that is further tested in future research.

One key component of many such future experiments will likely be the separated touchscreen setup the researchers came up with for this first study.

“We think our apparatus has much potential to advance primate social cognitive research by enabling, for the first time, computerized touchscreen tasks that multiple apes must work on together to solve,” says the study’s lead author Christopher Martin.

The paper detailing the findings of the turn taking study were published recently in the journal Scientific Reports.

About Calum Mckinney

I'm a writer and content creator focused on science and art. I live in Baltimore, Maryland with my cat Maggie.

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  1. Vincent J. says:

    That would be “vice versa,” not “visa versa.”