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Baboons (Papio papio), but not humans, break cognitive set in a visuomotor task


Cognitive set can be both helpful and harmful in problem solving. A large set of similar problems may be solved mechanically by applying a single-solution method. However, efficiency might be sacrificed if a better solution exists and is overlooked. Despite half a century of research on cognitive set, there have been no attempts to investigate whether it occurs in nonhuman species. The current study utilized a nonverbal, computer task to compare cognitive set between 104 humans and 15 baboons (Papio papio). A substantial difference was found between humans’ and baboons’ abilities to break cognitive set. Consistent with previous studies, the majority of humans were highly impaired by set, yet baboons were almost completely unaffected. Analysis of the human data revealed that children (aged 7–10) were significantly better able to break set than adolescents (11–18) and adults (19–68). Both the evolutionary and developmental implications of these findings are discussed.

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We are grateful to the staff of the CNRS Station de Primatologie (Rousset, France), especially Romain Lacoste and Jean-Christophe Marin, for technical assistance. Marianne Jover and Gérard Meguerditchian are acknowledged for their help in the pilot study. We thank the Zoo Atlanta staff, especially our staff liason Joseph Mendelson, for help and hospitality. S. Pope is funded by the Chateaubriand Fellowship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development as well as Georgia State University’s Second Century Initiative Primate Social Cognition, Evolution, and Behavior fellowship. A Meguerditchian is funded by the French National Ambassy Agency (ANR “LangPrimate”) Grant reference ANR-12-PDOC-0014_01. W. Hopkins is funded by National Institutes of Health grants: NS-73134 and HD-60563. J. Fagot is funded by the Premilang2″ ANR Grant ANR-13-BSH2-0002-01.

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Correspondence to Joël Fagot.

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The authors certify that this research was conducted with no financial, commercial, or other pursuits, which could be construed as potential conflicts of interest.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material. Pilot data were collected on 32 humans (aged 6–51), including 5 children (mean age = 6.4, SD = 0.55), 8 adolescents (mean age = 14.13, SD = 0.35), and 14 adults (mean age 36.36, SD = 10.02). Methods were highly similar to those previously described; however, children were given 500 ms demonstration slides during testing. Additionally, the first 10 adults were only given 48 testing trials. After a subject noted that she “figured it out at the very end,” the trial numbers were doubled. Once participants had completed all trials, they were asked whether they had thought about touching the triangle directly and their responses were recorded. Our results showed that 1 out of 14 (7.14 %) adults, 1 out of 8 (12.5 %) adolescents and 2 out of 5 (40 %) children would be classified as DSers. This is consistent with our later findings.

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Pope, S.M., Meguerditchian, A., Hopkins, W.D. et al. Baboons (Papio papio), but not humans, break cognitive set in a visuomotor task. Anim Cogn 18, 1339–1346 (2015).

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  • Cognitive set
  • Baboons
  • Einstellung
  • Problem solving
  • Strategies
  • Comparative