Baboons: The Unexpected Matchmakers

Two baboons on the road
Photo: Stella Bogdanic

The next time you’re struggling to relate, think like a baboon. Once again non-human primates are making monkeys out of us and our ideas about uniquely human abilities. Turns out baboons can solve analogy problems—yes, like those scary questions in the GRE Verbal Section.

Analogies are all about relationships. Cat is to kitten as dog is to puppy, rain is to dampness as sun is to heat, etc. To make an analogy, you have to understand the relationship between a pair and then relate that to another pair. Most of us use analogies all the time, and because of their link to language, we thought we were the only living beings that could do it. Not so, apparently.

In a study published in Psychological Science, Franklin & Marshall’s Roger Thompson and Joël Fagot of the Laboratoire de Psychologie Cognitive gave 29 baboons their very own analogy test using visual cues. Each baboon watched a touch screen reveal two shapes with a specific relationship. The next screen presented two pairs of shapes. Baboons received a reward when they correctly identified a pair that related in the same way as the first.

Not only did six of the baboons learn how to use analogies to earn a reward, but when taking the test again a year later, the baboons acquired the skill faster than the first time around. This suggests that they could remember how to make analogous connections.

The lesson for test-takers? Feel free to monkey around a little.

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