The game is called the “Forbidden Circle.” A group of researchers from the Netherlands and France, in a study published in Current Biology, trained a vervet monkey — a small, black-faced species common in East Africa — to open a container of yummy fruit only when other members of her group, those dominant to her, stayed outside an imaginary circle, about 10 to 15 meters away.
The other monkeys weren’t trained on the rules of this game. They didn’t know that the container could only be opened when they weren’t near. So at first, the dominant monkeys tried to guard the food, a strategy that in normal life would likely get them some fruit. But the provider monkey wouldn’t open the container, as per the rules, and eventually the monkeys would wander off. When they’d all left that imaginary circle, the container would be opened and they all could feast.
After several rounds of the game, however, the monkeys started to figure it out, realizing that trying to guard the container wouldn’t get them the food and that they had to move away if they wanted to eat. Higher ranked monkeys learned the rules first, and their lower ranked compatriots followed. And once they learned the rules, the monkeys remembered them, even when they hadn’t played the game for more than six months.
What’s even more interesting is that the monkeys learned the rules solely through trial and error, and they didn’t communicate the rules to each other or punish one another if the rules were broken. All it took was time and quiet patience.
“The vervets show us that tolerance towards group members and patience while others are learning how they can improve things individually can go a long way in solving coordination problems,” co-author Ronald Noë of Université de Strasbourg in France said in a statement.
This imaginary circle game hasn’t been tried yet on humans, but I have to wonder whether we could pull it off with so little drama. Just think of those team-building activities that take place during staff retreats than end in arguments and bullying and, sometimes, tears — it’ll make you wish you had a vervet monkey for a co-worker.
Image credit: Current Biology, Fruteau et al.