Say the word ‘statistician‘ and most people might think of an intelligent but reclusive person, probably working in a darkened room and almost certainly wearing glasses. But a new study shows that a monkey in front of a monitor can make a reasonably good statistician too.
Tianming Yang and Michael Shadlen from the University of Washington found that rhesus macaques can perform simple statistical calculations, and even watched their neurons doing it. Psychologists often train animals to learn simple tasks, where the right choice earns them a reward and the wrong one leaves them empty-handed or punished. But real life, of course, is not like that.
Mostly, there are risks and probabilities in lieu of guarantees or right answers. Animals must weigh up the available information, often from multiple sources, and decide on the course of action most likely to work out in their favour.
Yang and Shadlen tested this decision-making ability in two rhesus macaques using a variation of the well-known weather prediction task used to test human volunteers. In the human version, people are shown a series of cards that represent various probabilities of good or bad weather. After some training, they are shown combinations and asked to predict the likely weather from these.
The monkeys had a slightly simpler task – they had to look at either a green or a red target. If they picked the right one (which changed from trial to trial), they were rewarded with a tasty drink. To help the monkeys choose, Yang and Shadlen showed them a series of shapes that represented the probability that the rewarding target was red or green.