Brilliant chimp

OK, here's a quiz for you. You have a tube that is fixed in space. You cannot move it. It is too small for you to get your hands into it, and there is a peanut in the bottom. You want the peanut. How do you extract the peanut?

Have a look at how this chimp did it:

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Well, this is a variation on a classic kids' tale (although the roles of the liquid and the solid are reversed in that story), so this actually was the first thing that came to my mind. I have to admit that I never would have thought of getting a drink of water and then spitting into the tube, though.

I wonder what kind of previous experiences involving displacement or buoyancy the chimp might have had? He/she appeared to have a clear idea of what to expect when the water went into the tube.

The first thing that I notice is that the water source is off screen, which makes the puzzle setup misleading. The video viewer does not have any reason to assume that water is an available resource. "Here's the deal. You have a chimp, a cage, and a immovable tube with a peanut in it. How do you get the peanut out of the tube. Why, with the WATER of course, you dummy! Oh...did I forget to mention the water?"

Second, the video is edited to imply that the chimp solved it virtually instantly. I would like to know how long it actually took. Third, the commentary implies that a human never would think of it. A more accurate comment would be, "Bet you never thought of that within the five to ten seconds you were allowed, during which the essential ingredient that would provide the mechanism of the solution was withheld."

I object to dishonest presentations, and this one definitely falls in that category. I expect better of National Geographic than that. (Okay, okay, so it was a teaser. Big deal. It did get me to want to see the program, so I guess it did its job.)

I do wonder whether humans would be inhibited from that solution due to social conditioning against spitting the water. The "eww" factor on how the chimp did it might prevent some people from even approaching that solution in their minds.

Whatever a human might or might not do, however, that chimp does display a remarkable degree of problem solving. The novelty of the situation is a factor in the mind of the viewer, however. This seems roughly on par with their famous technique of poking a stick into a termite hill, which requires a knowledge that the termites will attack the stick, to their own undoing. We've all seen that one so many times by now that we probably would not react with as much delight (and make no mistake, I am delighted by the chimp's initiative, whatever I may think of the video producers.)

The video viewer does not have any reason to assume that water is an available resource.

I was thinking you would pee in to the tube.

I was thinking you would pee in to the tube.
Yum! Salted peanuts. See paragraph on "eww" factor. :)

Just for grins, I timed the segment. You are given an aggregate total of about seven seconds before the solution is presented and you are disqualified as stupider than a chimp. This time is broken up into three chunks of 2-ish seconds apiece, between each of which you are expected to stop what you are doing and read and process the text that the producer puts in front of your eyes.

Sorry to be harping on the integrity of the producers, but the segment is a fascinating little study on the art of misdirection, quite apart from its purported content. There is as much effort put into managing your perceptions here as what goes into a stage magician's performance. At this point, it is as interesting to me on those grounds as it is on the chimp's abilities. Editing has a profound impact on the overall perception of the actual data. In as much as video is becoming an ever-increasing player in the dissemination of information, it is useful to viewers to be aware of how they are being manipulated.

The stage management is fine - like all advertising, it is designed to make you buy the product. It is not a study of the product.

Chimps are NOT smarter than humans, in the sense of being able to solve complex mathematical equations. But they are pretty damn good at matching patterns. Perhaps in some things, like navigating around a forest, they are better than you. And they have pretty impressive problem solving ability "for an animal". That's surely all that the clip is implying. It's not a controlled test, it's just an advert.

I agree that an advertisement shouldn't necessarily be held to the same standard as a peer-reviewed journal submission, at least regarding accuracy and bias. It is, however, useful to be aware of what is going on at a subliminal level -- in front of your face, yet behind the scenes -- because it is having an effect on you.

The stage management is NOT fine, and here is why. Advertisements have a classic pattern of making the viewer feel inadequate or anxious in order to sell a product. Over time this is damaging to the individuals viewing the advertisements. I watched my wife's self-esteem plummet in a matter of weeks, during a period in which she took to watching broadcast television while doing her exercise program. (Normally my family and I watch no broadcast television.) The effect was dramatic and alarming. I noticed the correlation between the television watching and the onset of the anxiety, and suggested she find something else to occupy her attention while she exercised. Her attitude improved within a matter of days after unplugging.

There are tests, on Web sites and circulated on email, designed specifically to trip up the average person. These are marketed under titles like "how stupid are you?" Taking the test uncritically, one comes away with a feeling of "God, they are right, I'm stupid." Examining the test itself, and becoming aware of the tricks involved, one walks away finding the test to be an interesting artifact illuminating human patterns, rather than a personal indictment.

Barring a few entertainment situations, where knowing the secret spoils the effect, it's always useful to understand what someone is doing to try to trick you.


I completely agree with you in principle, but...

This is actually a chimp on YouTube. Few YouTube videos get analyzed this way.

What would be really important is to look at the original NGS context. Whatever that is. In particular, the novelty or lack thereof is most important. I don't care that this may have been a 10 minutes vs 1 hour time span as much as I would like to know the basics related to experience and conditioning. Was the chimp shown this or a similar solution before? Has the chimp ever seen a tube before? Etc.

(Dary I add: Are we sure this is not a kid in a chimp suit????)

For what it's worth, chances are very good that the teaser was made not by the people who made the program (Nova, who are usually pretty good about that sort of thing), but by the network, who are being provocative, if uncareful, to get us to watch. I'll stop with the digression.

Back to the original content, I agree: How did the chimp know that peanuts float? Or, even more intriguing, that peanuts might float? The former implies cause and effect processing, which is impressive enough by itself. The latter implies something like imagination.

I hope the program goes into that sort of detail.

Give me the tube, peanut, cage, and the producer of that ad.

Let's see how long it takes the producer to figure out how to get the tube out of his ass.

I wonder how many chimps DIDN'T solve the puzzle? Nevertheless, I was super-impressed. This video would be terrific for a grade four science class.

Say what you want about this chimp, but that is some really accurate and tube spitting!

This is just a "chimp-friendly" version of a creative problem solving task often used in tests. Most human test subjects fail to solve the standard versions, so I'd say the chimp seems pretty brilliant.

The comments are just as much fun as the video, which had me spluttering with delight. I agree that there's a heavy smell of chicanery around this well-edited bit of magic, but in the end, the chimp provided the magic. I find myself wondering how, in a "civilized" world,how we justify confining a mind like that to a cage like that.

The reactions to this video clip have been very interesting... and quite passionate. I agree that advertising tends to engage in manipulative tactics in order to encourage certain reactions from viewers. But the point of the ad was not really to convince you that apes are smarter than humans, but rather to point out that chimps are smarter than we give them credit for. In order to understand how much the chimp was trained to perform the task we'd have to watch the entire Nova special. Reiterating the point of RNB on a previous comment, this is not a controlled experiment. It's just an advertisement.

That being said, it still provides some enlightening information on how our culture (and the filmmakers in particular) view apes. There is a surprising dichotomy between the message that apes are smart and the context that they belong in cages. The stark contrast between the conceptual and visual message of the ad perpetuate (and reinforce) our own confusion over how to deal with animals in general. We recognize the startling intelligence of a creature, and at the same time we confine it with the assumption that it isn't smart enough to know any better.

I didn't think of the chimp's solution, but I did formulate one (two, actually) that I think would be similarly effective in the time before it showed the chimpanzee trying the water.

Tactic A is simply a string tied to a piece of chewing gum; lower it in, maybe use a stick to press it against the peanut (to make sure it sticks), then pull it out.

Tactic B just requires access to a sufficiently long piece of wire; bend the end into a school, stick the wire in, scoop up the peanut.

I don't think either solution is as elegant as that shown in the video, but they would work well enough.

I figured it out in less than three seconds: where's that long needle nosed roach clip....silly chimps...
As for the analysis of the video, I think some cross cultural rhetoric is necessary, maybe a critique of our egocentric, and phallo centric self, like, why did they use a long tube? And notice how the chimp is broooowwn! Ocbvious white male phallus centered,racist, and specieezest video....

By the real cmf (not verified) on 16 Feb 2008 #permalink

Well, I figured out the solution before looking at the video. I expect it took longer than 10 seconds, but then again, perhaps so did the chimp.

With no mental picture of a zoo cage (actually I was imagining in the jungle, as per Greg's profile picture) I didn't assume no water was available. I was just looking for a reliable way to get the peanut out. Poking it with a stick didn't seem too reliable, nor hitting the bottom of the tube.