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Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) transfer tokens repeatedly with a partner to accumulate rewards in a self-control task


There has been extensive research investigating self-control in humans and nonhuman animals, yet we know surprisingly little about how one’s social environment influences self-control. The present study examined the self-control of chimpanzees in a task that required active engagement with conspecifics. The task consisted of transferring a token back and forth with a partner animal in order to accumulate food rewards, one item per token transfer. Self-control was required because at any point in the trial, either chimpanzee could obtain their accumulated rewards, but doing so discontinued the food accumulation and ended the trial for both individuals. Chimpanzees readily engaged the task and accumulated the majority of available rewards before ending each trial, and they did so across a number of conditions that varied the identity of the partner, the presence/absence of the experimenter, and the means by which they could obtain rewards. A second experiment examined chimpanzees’ self-control when given the choice between immediately available food items and a potentially larger amount of rewards that could be obtained by engaging the token transfer task with a partner. Chimpanzees were flexible in their decision-making in this test, typically choosing the option representing the largest amount of food, even if it involved delayed accumulation of the rewards via the token transfer task. These results demonstrate that chimpanzees can exhibit self-control in situations involving social interactions, and they encourage further research into this important aspect of the self-control scenario.

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The research was supported by National Institute of Child Health and Development (grant HD-060563). Audrey Parrish was supported, in part, by the 2CI University Doctoral Fellowship from Georgia State University, and Bonnie Perdue was supported, in part, by the Duane M. Rumbaugh Fellowship from Georgia State University. The authors thank the animal care and enrichment team at the Language Research Center.

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Correspondence to Audrey E. Parrish.

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Parrish, A.E., Perdue, B.M., Evans, T.A. et al. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) transfer tokens repeatedly with a partner to accumulate rewards in a self-control task. Anim Cogn 16, 627–636 (2013).

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  • Self-control
  • Chimpanzees
  • Token transfer
  • Delay of gratification
  • Accumulation