Monkeys Are So Curious They'll Trade Prizes For Knowledge
Monkey see, monkey do. Monkey very curious -- so curious, in fact, they seem willing to give up a significantly large portion of a potential prize in order to quickly find out if they picked the winning option at a game of chance, researchers say.
Rhesus macaques show a surprising eagerness to acquire new information even when there are no immediate benefits, researchers at Columbia University and the University of Rochester have found.
The findings may yield understanding of the role of a certain region of the brain -- shared by human and monkeys -- in decision-making, the scientists say, and may even offer insights into some human mental disorders and addictions.
In a study, monkeys presented with a video "gambling" task consistently chose to learn in advance if they had picked the winning option, even though they did not receive their prize -- some juice or water -- any sooner, the researchers reported in the journal Neuron.
"It's like buying a lottery ticket that you can scratch off and find out if you win immediately, or you can buy one that has a drawing after the evening news," explained Rochester cognitive science Professor Benjamin Hayden, co-senior author of the study. "Regardless, you won't get the money any more quickly, or in the case of the monkeys, they won't get the squirt of water any sooner. They will just find out if they selected the winning option."
In the experiments, graduated on-screen colored columns showed the monkeys the amount of water that might be won.
The monkeys showed more curiosity about the gambles when the stakes -- or columns -- were higher, the researchers found.
More importantly, they not only consistently went for the "gamble" that told them right away that they had picked a winner, but were also willing to choose that option even when the potential winnings were as much as 25 percent less than the gamble that required them to wait for the results, the scientists found.
"One way to think about this is that this is the amount of water the monkeys were willing to 'pay' for the information about if they made the correct choice," says Rochester researcher and doctoral candidate Tommy Blanchard.
"That 25 percent was really surprising to us -- that's pretty big," Hayden says. "These monkeys really, really want that information, and they do these gambling tasks repeatedly and never get bored of them -- it's intrinsically motivated."
The study's findings help in understanding how curiosity -- a desire for information -- is processed and rewarded in our brains, the researchers say.
Humans, like monkeys, will evaluate what they'd be willing to pay, or to give up, to satisfy their curiosity, Hayden says.
"One of the reasons this research is important," he says, "is because this basic desire for information turns out to be something that's really corrupted in people with anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and addiction, for example."
"We think that by understanding these basic circuits in monkeys we may gain insights that 10 to 15 years down the road may lead to new treatments for these psychiatric diseases," he adds.