The Curious Case of Curious George
By Adam Damadzic
Psychology is the study of the human mind, and while much of the research available uses human participants, it’s always fun when you come across exciting research that uses orangutans for participants.
Some of you may be asking why I’m about to write about orangutans. Well…
Because it’s cool!
Carel Van Schaik at The University of Zurich and his “pry-mates” have spent several years studying curiosity. More recently, they’ve studied curiosity in orangutans. Carel Van Schaik noticed that wild orangutans did not destroy his equipment while he was studying the climate in the canopy of the Sumatran rain forest. In contrast, he noticed that the orangutans he saw in rehabilitation centers were far more curious. Wild orangutans, he observed, are incredibly incurious, avoiding to the new, and hate the unfamiliar. However, captive orangutans are the opposite, ready to explore the new.
Using ape-lied science, one of Van Schaik’s team members, Sofia Fross, built fake habitats and included items that the wild orangutans had never seen before. Footage from motion sensor cameras showed these wild orangutans avoided the new items. The same study was replicated in several zoos. In comparison to the wild orangutans, those in the zoo explored the new items.
These results were bananas. There was something about captivity that led the orangutans to become more curious. The same researchers found that should this potential be touched on early enough, the curiosity resulting from captivity could boost their problem solving abilities.
The why behind this study is pretty cool. The researchers propose the idea from an evolutionary standpoint, that as the captive orangutans feel “safe”, they are more open to explore. They tie this link to human evolution, where weapons and the ability to gather large quantities of food allowed us to take further risks. Hence, the wild orangutans were less likely to experiment with the new items, as they might be dangerous. Instead of exploring, they followed the lead of others.
The monk-key to these findings is how a safe environment allowed orangutans to take more risks, and be far more open to new experiences. Both these qualities are tied to creativity in humans which allows us to use this research to suggest that if we wanted to encourage creativity in organizations, having a secure safe environment may be one possible route. So next time you are trying to create a creative climate, take a swing at encouraging risk-taking and being open to new experiences in your organization!