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Positional inference in rhesus macaques

Abstract

Understanding how organisms make transitive inferences is critical to understanding their general ability to learn serial relationships. In this context, transitive inference (TI) can be understood as a specific heuristic that applies broadly to many different serial learning tasks, which have been the focus of hundreds of studies involving dozens of species. In the present study, monkeys learned the order of 7-item lists of photographic stimuli by trial and error, and were then tested on “derived” lists. These derived test lists combined stimuli from multiple training lists in ambiguous ways, sometimes changing their order relative to training. We found that subjects displayed strong preferences when presented with novel test pairs, even when those pairs were drawn from different training lists. These preferences were helpful when test pairs had an ordering congruent with their ranks during training, but yielded consistently below-chance performance when pairs had an incongruent order relative to training. This behavior can be explained by the joint contributions of transitive inference and another heuristic that we refer to as “positional inference.” Positional inferences play a complementary role to transitive inferences in facilitating choices between novel pairs of stimuli. The theoretical framework that best explains both transitive and positional inferences is a spatial model that represents both the position of each stimulus and its uncertainty. A computational implementation of this framework yields accurate predictions about both correct responses and errors on derived lists.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Yelda Alkan, David Freshwater, Aliza Gross, Katherine Liu, and Grant Spencer for assistance with data collection.

Funding

This work was supported by US National Institute of Mental Health, Grant numbers NIH-MH081153 and NIH-MH111703 awarded to Vincent Ferrera and Herbert Terrace.

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Correspondence to Greg Jensen.

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Jensen, G., Ferrera, V.P. & Terrace, H.S. Positional inference in rhesus macaques. Anim Cogn (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10071-021-01536-x

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Keywords

  • Derived list
  • Transitive inference
  • Positional inference
  • Serial learning
  • Symbolic distance effect