Asia Minute: Teaching Chimpanzees in Japan is Child’s Play

Aug 14, 2017

Credit foshie / Flickr

A children’s game familiar to many in the islands is at the center of new research in Asia. Scientists say it’s helping them learn more about the reasoning ability of primates. HPR’s Bill Dorman has more in today’s Asia Minute.


You probably know this game: rock, paper, scissors. In Hawai‘i, frequently known by its Japanese name:  Jan, Ken, Po.

You toss out your hand either as a rock, a piece of paper, or a pair of scissors. The rules: rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, and paper beats rock.

Scientists working at Kyoto University in Japan say chimpanzees can learn those rules.

It takes them some time to pick it up, but after a while, they can play at the level of a four year old child – even someone a little older.

Researchers studied seven chimpanzees of different ages and sexes—putting them in a booth with a computer touch-screen showing images of rock, paper and scissors.

They were trained to choose the stronger of two options shown on screen. A winning choice produced food and a chime sound. A bad choice led to no food and a buzzer.

Two of the chimpanzees never got beyond a success rate of 70 to 80 percent. But the other five mastered the game—finishing their training after an average of 307 sessions.

The kids picked it up faster, a test group of 38 preschool children learned the rules in about five sessions, on average.

Researchers say their work shows that chimpanzees are able to understand extended patterns—a key building block for problem solving.

The research has been published in the journal Primates.