A new study has shown that chimpanzees can learn how to play the game rock-paper-scissors about as well as a 4-year-old human child. This finding suggests that the last common ancestor of humans and chimps may have possessed the capability for the complex form of thinking used in the game, scientists said.

In the popular children’s game rock-paper-scissors, the hand signal for “paper” always beats the sign for “rock,” while “rock” trumps “scissors,” and “scissors” defeats “paper.” The ability to learn such circular relationships might prove key to solving complex problems or forming complex networks of social relationships, the researchers said.

Seven chimpanzees of different ages and sexes living in the Primate Research Institute at Kyoto University were part of the experiment. They sat in a booth housing a computer-based touchscreen and were trained to choose the stronger of two options (based on the rules of the game) they saw on screen. They first learnt the paper-rock sequence, then the rock-scissors one and finally the scissors-paper combination. Once they knew how the pairs fitted together, all the different pairs were randomly presented to them on screen. Five of the seven chimpanzees completed the training after an average of 307 sessions.

The findings show that chimpanzees can learn the circular pattern at the heart of the game. However, it took them significantly longer to learn the third scissors-paper pair than it did to grasp the others, which indicates that they had difficulty finalizing the circular nature of the pattern. The research team then also taught the game to 38 preschool children to compare the learning process of chimpanzees with that of humans aged three to six. The children had little difficulty grasping the game, and on average did so within five sessions. Their performance was, however, subject to age. The older the children were, the more accurate they became when all three pairs were randomly presented to them. Participants older than 50 months (about four years) played the game with more skill rather than luck.

They’re about as good at the game as a human four-year-old.

Rock Paper Scissors is a tool for deciding who has to do the dishes or which sports team goes first. But the game is also great for testing chimpanzees’ learning abilities. A new study shows chimps can eventually figure out the circular rules—rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, and paper beats rock—and children can easily pick up the rules starting around age four.

The human children, on the other hand, figured out the three relationships in about six tries, on average. After the kids were taught the rules, they were given the relationships at random and asked which hand gesture won. Kids older than 50 months (just over age four) remembered the relationships and did better than chance, while younger kids were just randomly guessing. And when the chimps were given the relationships at random, they performed just as well as a human four-year-old.

New study has shown that chimpanzees’ have the ability to learn simple circular relationships is on a par with that of four-year-old children. Chimpanzees of all sexes and ages can learn the simple circular relationship between the three different hand signals used in the well-known game rock-paper-scissors. Although it might take them a longer time to learn, they are still able to learn the game just as a young child would do also. Jie Gao of Kyoto University in Japan and Peking University in China is lead author of a study in the journal Primates, which is the official journal of the Japan Monkey Centre, and is published by Springer. The research compares the ability of chimpanzees and children to learn the rock-paper-scissors game. Gao’s research team wanted to find out whether chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) can grasp extended patterns. They used the rock-paper-scissors game, a popular children’s game in which the hand signal for “paper” always beats “rock”, while “rock” trumps “scissors”, and “scissors” defeats “paper”. The relationship between the signals are non-linear and must be understood within the context of how the pairs are grouped. Learning such transverse patterns requires enhanced mental capacity and it is useful when forming complex relationship networks, solving problems, or updating what you already know about a subject. The scientists used seven chimpanzees of various ages and sexes in the experiment just like in the previous Primate Research Institute. They were trained to respond to the hand signals on a computer touch-screen, choosing the stronger of two options — just as the game is played.

First the researchers taught the chimps the paper-rock combination, followed by the rock-scissors one, and finally paper and scissors. The scientists also taught the game to 38 children aged 3-6 to compare the speed of the learning process. Ms Gao said the findings suggested that “children acquire the ability to learn a circular relationship and to solve a transverse patterning problem around the age of four years.”

She said “the chimpanzees’ performance during the mixed-pair sessions was similar to that of four-year-old children.” Robots and their pesky artificial intelligence will eventually take over the world, but in the meantime get your kicks schooling some chimps in Rock, Paper, Scissors.

A new study at Kyoto University’s Primate Research Institute in Japan shows that chimpanzees have learned to play the game to the level of a four-year-old human child.

The apes took an average of about 1.71 sessions to learn the paper-rock sequence, and about 3.14 sessions to learn the rock-scissors pair, but the final scissors-pair combination took about 14.29 sessions to learn. This suggests the chimps had difficulty understanding the circular nature of the game, the researchers said.

Once the chimpanzees learned how all the pairs worked, the scientists displayed a random mix of all three pairs for the apes. After an average of 307 sessions playing the game, with three 12- to 15-minute sessions a day, five of the seven chimps showed they had mastered the game, picking the winning choice at least 90 percent of the time…

“We’ve proved that chimpanzees have the intellectual capability to learn circular relationships, and of course humans have this capability. So the logical conclusion is that the last common ancestor that humans and chimpanzees had about 6 million years ago may also have had this kind of capability,” Matsuzawa said.

It’s the next step in the study that most excites me, with researchers keen to test how well their chimps in Japan perform at the game against humans, or against chimps in the United States.

The world of competitive sport is sorely lacking a chimpanzee Rock, Paper, Scissors showdown between the best primates from Japan and the USA, but the wait may finally be over.