In the video above, I discuss a fascinating set of scientific studies which investigated if wild or captive animals are more creative.

I often ask myself the difficult questions, like how creativity evolved.

That’s why I was so thrilled to find out about the researchers who have made some startling discoveries about curiosity in animals.

Researchers wanted to find out that while Orang Utans (which are close relatives of humans) were very curious in captivity, they were extremely shy and risk-averse in the wild.

They set out a number of experiments by placing new (unexpected) objects in two sets of habitats, and seeing how long it took for the curiosity of the Orang Utans to take over and interact with the new objects.

In the wild habitats of Borneo and Sumatra, the Orang Utans saw the objects but did not approach them, even after months.

Whereas in Frankfurt and Zurich Zoos, the apes began interacting with the new objects almost immediately.

Check out the contrasting results here:

Time to interact with novel objects by Orang Utans - Van Schaik et al 2016

Time to interact with novel objects by Orang Utans – Van Schaik et al 2016

This finding, that captive Orang Utans were more curious than wild animals, was reinforced through other studies, and also extended to evidence seen in Hyenas, birds, monkeys and other animals.

Not only that, but it also found that the more curious captive Orang Utans were better problem solvers and more intelligent than their wild counterparts, with the captive animals having a higher repertoire of innovative ways to solve problems.

Innovation Repertoire in Orang Utans - Russon et al 2009

Innovation Repertoire in Orang Utans – Russon et al 2009

All of this evidence shows that something causes captive Orang Utans to be more curious, and creative, than wild ones.

The researchers have two main theories as to why this happens:

  1. Humans as role models: Orang Utans are not innovators by nature. When they do find novel solutions, it is usually by accident. But when one of these accidental solutions is found, it will quickly spread through a population as other apes learn it, especially younger apes who learn from following the guidance of their elders. The researchers theorise that exposure to humans, especially those providing positive care for the animals in a zoo or rehabilitation setting, makes the humans a role model who can be copied and followed. So if a human touches an unknown object, then it signals to the apes that it is likely safe and they can interact with it too, making curiosity less risky.
  2. Not worrying about basic needs: In captivity, apes are provided with safe and comfortable shelter, regular high-quality food and safety from predators. In the wild, the apes need to worry about meeting these basic needs themselves. Loss aversion theory also indicates it is much more painful to lose something you have than getting something new, hence why unfamiliar objects may seem dangerous to wild animals. The theory goes that once animals feel safe that their basic needs are being met, they are more comfortable interacting with novel objects and stimuli.

I found all of these studies fascinating, as it gives us an insight into the evolution and basic requirements for allowing curiosity to flourish.

It also gives us insights into how we can facilitate curiosity in our own lives, and especially in the lives of those who depend on us, like our teams and children. Those are:

  1. Act as a role model, showing that curiosity and creativity are accepted and should be encouraged, by displaying these characteristics yourself
  2. Provide a safe environment so people don’t need to worry about their basic needs.

I hope you found this video as insightful as I did. If you know someone who is interested in animals and their psychology, please share this article with them.


Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

Idea to Value Podcast: Listen and Subscribe now

Listen and Subscribe to the Idea to Value Podcast. The best expert insights on Creativity and Innovation. If you like them, please leave us a review as well.
The following two tabs change content below.
Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.