Animal Cognition

, Volume 17, Issue 5, pp 1081–1088 | Cite as

Exploration and learning in capuchin monkeys (Sapajus spp.): the role of action–outcome contingencies

  • Eugenia Polizzi di SorrentinoEmail author
  • Gloria Sabbatini
  • Valentina Truppa
  • Anna Bordonali
  • Fabrizio Taffoni
  • Domenico Formica
  • Gianluca Baldassarre
  • Marco Mirolli
  • Eugenio Guglielmelli
  • Elisabetta Visalberghi
Original Paper


Animals have a strong propensity to explore the environment. Spontaneous exploration has a great biological significance since it allows animals to discover and learn the relation between specific behaviours and their consequences. The role of the contingency between action and outcome for learning has been mainly investigated in instrumental learning settings and much less in free exploration contexts. We tested 16 capuchin monkeys (Sapajus spp.) with a mechatronic platform that allowed complex modules to be manipulated and to produce different outcomes. Experimental subjects could manipulate the modules and discover the contingencies between their own specific actions and the outcomes produced (i.e., the opening and lighting of a box). By contrast, Control subjects could operate on the modules, but the outcomes experienced were those performed by their paired Experimental subjects (“yoked-control” paradigm). In the exploration phase, in which no food reward was present, Experimental subjects spent more time on the board and manipulated the modules more than Yoked subjects. Experimental subjects outperformed Yoked subjects in the following test phase, where success required recalling the effective action so to open the box, now baited with food. These findings demonstrate that the opportunity to experience action–outcome contingencies in the absence of extrinsic rewards promotes capuchins’ exploration and facilitates learning processes. Thus, this intrinsically motivated learning represents a powerful mechanism allowing the acquisition of skills and cognitive competence that the individual can later exploit for adaptive purposes.


Learning Intrinsic motivation Contingency Mechatronic platform 



This research was supported by the IM-CleVeR project (Intrinsically Motivated Cumulative Learning Versatile Robots, Grant Agreement No. 231722), financed by the FP7 within the “Challenge 2—Cognitive Systems, Interaction, Robotics”, of the European Commission. We thank Aurora De Bortoli Vizioli, Cinzia Trapanese, Eva Gabrielli, Silvia Foti, Maria Ceraulo, Luca Santini, Leonardo Ancillotto for their help in data collection, video footages and logistical support. We are also grateful to the Bioparco Foundation for hosting the laboratory where the experiment was carried out, and to the keepers M. Bianchi and S. Catarinacci.

Ethical standards

All procedures complied with protocols approved by the Italian Health Ministry (Licence No. 12/2011-C) and were performed in full accordance with the European law on humane care and use of Laboratory animals.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 15 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (MPG 1996 kb)

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Supplementary material 3 (JPEG 123 kb)
10071_2014_740_MOESM4_ESM.jpg (46 kb)
Supplementary material 4 (JPEG 46 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Eugenia Polizzi di Sorrentino
    • 1
    Email author
  • Gloria Sabbatini
    • 1
  • Valentina Truppa
    • 1
  • Anna Bordonali
    • 2
  • Fabrizio Taffoni
    • 3
  • Domenico Formica
    • 3
  • Gianluca Baldassarre
    • 4
  • Marco Mirolli
    • 4
  • Eugenio Guglielmelli
    • 3
  • Elisabetta Visalberghi
    • 1
  1. 1.Unit of Cognitive Primatology and Primate CenterISTC-CNRRomeItaly
  2. 2.Department of Life Sciences and Systems BiologyUniversity of TorinoTurinItaly
  3. 3.Laboratory of Biomedical Robotics and Biomicrosystems, Center for Integrated ResearchUniversità Campus Bio-MedicoRomeItaly
  4. 4.Laboratory of Computational Embodied NeuroscienceISTC-CNRRomeItaly

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