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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Capuchin Monkeys Exercise Self-control by Choosing Token Exchange Over an Immediate Reward


Self-control is a prerequisite for complex cognitive processes such as cooperation and planning. As such, comparative studies of self-control may help elucidate the evolutionary origin of these capacities. A variety of methods have been developed to test for self-control in non-human primates that include some variation of foregoing an immediate reward in order to gain a more favorable reward. We used a token exchange paradigm to test for self-control in capuchin monkeys ( Cebus apella ). Animals were trained that particular tokens could be exchanged for food items worth different values. To test for self-control, a monkey was provided with a token that was associated with a lower-value food. When the monkey exchanged the token, the experimenter provided the monkey with a choice between the lower-value food item associated with the token or another token that was associated with a higher-value food. If the monkey chose the token, they could then exchange it for the higher-value food. Of seven monkeys trained to exchange tokens, five demonstrated that they attributed value to the tokens by differentially selecting tokens for higher-value foods over tokens for lower-value foods. When provided with a choice between a food item or a token for a higher-value food, two monkeys selected the token significantly more than expected by chance. The ability of capuchin monkeys to forego an immediate food reward and select a token that could then be traded for a more preferred food demonstrated some degree of self-control. Thus, results suggest a token exchange paradigm could be a successful technique for assessing self-control in this New World species.

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