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Are children more curious than apes? Yes, and no, finds new study

Deep down, we all have that burning sense of curiosity, that insatiable urge to explore the unknown. But how does this curiosity manifest in children compared to our closest animal relatives, the great apes? The answer may surprise you.

Researchers Alejandro Sánchez-Amaro of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and Federico Rossano of the University of California San Diego have recently published their findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE

This study marks the first direct comparison between human children and great apes regarding their propensity for exploration and risk-taking.

How the study was conducted

The investigation centered around a series of ingenious experiments involving rewards hidden under upturned cups. Children, chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans were all presented with the same choice.

In each case, two cups were presented to the subjects. One cup, transparent, held a small reward visible to the participant – grapes for the apes, stickers for the children. The second cup was opaque, effectively concealing a larger reward. The test was designed to see whether the subjects would opt for the sure thing or take a gamble on the hidden, potentially greater, reward.

Children showed an outstanding inclination to explore the unknown, with 85 and 77 percent of them choosing the opaque cup at least once in the fourth and fifth trials, respectively. The apes, in contrast, were more cautious, with only 24 percent choosing the mysterious cup in the third trial.

However, when researchers briefly revealed the hidden reward and allowed participants a second chance at their choice, the playing field leveled somewhat. An overwhelming majority of both children and apes, over 88%, chose the opaque cup with the more substantial reward.

What the researchers learned

The researchers observed that, although children seemed naturally more drawn to uncertainty and exploration, apes could learn the potential benefits of such behavior and adapt. In essence, the apes’ decision-making became more adventurous after gaining awareness of the possible rewards of risk-taking.

“This study is the first to compare curiosity in human children and great apes using the same experimental set-up,” said Sánchez-Amaro and Rossano. They believe the results imply that children may be inherently more inclined to explore the unknown, or perhaps they are simply less risk-averse than great apes. 

However, they note, “after learning about the rewards of exploring uncertainty, apes quickly applied this knowledge to future scenarios.”

This study offers an exciting glimpse into the cognitive parallels and differences between humans and our evolutionary cousins, and the potential role of curiosity in survival and learning. It reinforces the idea that exploration and risk-taking, tempered by learning and experience, are shared traits that span across our evolutionary family tree.

“In this comparative set of studies, we explored whether children and non-human great apes would be curious to forego a visible benefit under a transparent cup to explore an uncertain option under an opaque cup,” said the researchers. “We found that children were more likely to explore the uncertain option than the great apes when no other information was available.” 

“Only after we unveiled the content of alternative opaque cups, which yielded better outcomes than the visible options during an intervention phase, did apes quickly overcome their initial risk aversion towards uncertain options. Children continued engaging in some level of exploration to diversify their options.”

The evolutionary benefits of curiosity

Curiosity, the drive to seek out and explore new environments, is an integral part of many creatures’ behavioral repertoire. But why has evolution favored this trait? How has curiosity provided a survival advantage to organisms across various species? Let’s delve a little deeper.

Knowledge and Learning

Curiosity fuels learning and the acquisition of knowledge. It drives organisms to explore their surroundings, understand cause-and-effect relationships, and learn about the potential dangers and opportunities that exist. This continual process of learning helps creatures to adapt better to their environments, survive, and reproduce. In humans, our advanced cognitive abilities allow us to build on this knowledge over generations, leading to the development of complex societies and technologies.

Resource Discovery

Curiosity can lead organisms to discover new resources. This might include finding new sources of food or better habitats. For example, an animal’s curiosity might lead it to explore a new territory, where it discovers abundant food or a safer nesting place. This aspect of curiosity can be particularly beneficial in changing environments or when resources are scarce.


Curiosity is a key driver in problem-solving, a critical skill for survival in many species. It encourages individuals to experiment with different solutions when faced with challenges. Curious animals, including humans, tend to be better problem-solvers as they explore different strategies and learn from their experiences.

Social Bonding

Curiosity about others can lead to social bonding and improved group dynamics. In many social species, including humans, individuals show curiosity about each other. This can lead to stronger social bonds, improved cooperation, and better group cohesion, all of which can enhance survival.

Innovation and Evolution

On a larger scale, curiosity can lead to innovation and evolution. By driving organisms to explore and experiment, it can lead to the development of new behaviors, technologies, and ways of life. These can then spread through populations and drive evolutionary change.

It’s important to note, however, that like many traits, curiosity comes with trade-offs. While it can lead to learning and the discovery of new resources, it can also expose an individual to risks. Too much curiosity can lead to wasted time, energy, or even danger if a curious individual exposes themselves to unnecessary risks. Therefore, a balance of curiosity and caution is often the most advantageous approach.

Overall, curiosity has been a major driver of survival, learning, and evolution in numerous species. As a result, it remains a fascinating area of study for scientists seeking to understand animal and human behavior.


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