Parrot Beats Harvard Students At Memory Game

Is an African grey parrot smarter than a Harvard University Student? Probably not, but it does appear to be better at the classic Shell Game.

Griffin, a 22-year-old grey parrot (they can live more than 50 years) outperformed 21 Harvard students in the classic memory game where a ball (in this case, a colorful pom-pom) is hidden under a plastic cup, the cups are shuffled, and one has to guess which cup contains the ball. Griffin reportedly did as well as or bested the Harvard students in 12 out of 14 trials, Fox News reported.

The results were published in May but only recently reported. The Harvard Gazette reported the findings earlier this month. In addition to the Harvard students, Griffin’s results were also compared to 21 6- to 8-year-old kids. The test, according to the Gazette, was a little more complicated than the classic Shell Game.

“The participants were tested on tracking two, three, and four different-colored pom-poms. The position of the cups were swapped zero to four times for each of those combinations. Griffin and the students did 120 trials; the children did 36,” the outlet reported.

Griffin “outperformed the 6- to 8-year-olds across all levels on average, and he performed either as well as or slightly better than the 21 Harvard undergraduates on 12 of the 14 of trial types,” the Gazette reported.

“Think about it: Grey parrot outperforms Harvard undergrads. That’s pretty freaking awesome,” lead study author and postdoctoral Harvard fellow Hrag Pailian told the Gazette. “We had students concentrating in engineering, pre-meds, this, that, seniors, and he just kicked their butts.”

Fox reported that “Griffin is not your average parrot.” The study’s authors wrote that the parrot “has been the subject of cognitive and communicative studies … since his acquisition from a breeder at 7.5 weeks of age.”

The Gazette added that “Harvard students did manage to keep (some) of their Crimson pride intact.”

“On the final two tests, which involved the most items and the most movement, the adults had the clear edge. Griffin’s average dipped toward the children’s performance — though never below it. The researchers were unable to determine the precise reason for this drop, but they believe it has something to do with the way human intelligence works (arguably making the Harvard students’ victory a matter of performance enhancement of the genetic variety),” the outlet reported.

The memory game experiment was part of a larger study published in Scientific Reports and sought to investigate limitation sin the brain’s “ability to process and update mental representations,” the Gazette reported.

More from Fox:

What does this bird-brain study tell us about the power of cognition? According to the researchers, both the parrot and the human participants were using a feature of their working memories called “manipulation” to succeed in these tasks. Not only were they able to remember which pom-poms were under which cups once they were out of view, but they were then able to manipulate that information as the cups were shuffled around. The fact that a parrot performed on-par with 42 human competitors suggests that manipulation is an evolutionarily ancient capability, which may have existed in a common ancestor millions of years ago.

In case you were wondering, Griffin received some raw cashew crackers for participating in the experiment.

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