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Dr Alessandro Bongioanni, Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Experimental Psychology, writes for the Oxford Science Blog on the way humans and other primates make first-time choices.

Monkey

One thing that makes our brain so fascinating is the staggering range of behaviours it allows. We are not just good at doing things in environments we know well (such as shopping at our usual grocery store), but we are surprisingly successful at navigating novel environments (such as scrolling this blog, making new friends, finding a job, etc.).

When I was an adolescent, I went for the first time to the only Thai restaurant in my city. Every single dish in the menu was new for me. I knew oysters, I knew beef, but I had never tried fried beef in oyster sauce before. Still, I was able to make up my mind and speculate that I would probably like the fried beef more than the chicken in coconut soup. This simple anecdote illustrates something bigger: all human progress required people to leave the comfort of a familiar situation and explore new places or new ideas. Today, with social and technological changes accelerating, we are continuously exposed to novel objects and situations and we generally cope very well with them.

If the ability to make adaptive choices in novel situations is so crucial for our human exploits, surely this is a unique ability of our species? Well, no. Animals too are able to adapt to new environments and to express meaningful preferences among objects or situations that they have never encountered before, based on similarities with what they know.

Read the full blog on the University of Oxford website

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