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I’ll (not) take that: The reverse-reward contingency task as a test of self-control and inhibition


While searching for more evidence of quantitative skills in chimpanzees to add to what she already had found, Boysen discovered something else. When training chimpanzees to point at what they would not get, and not pointing at what they would get, none could do this for piles of food items. Even when those items in the pointed-at set were given away to another chimpanzee, and even with experience in the task, failure persisted. This test, the reverse-reward contingency test, has now been used with many species, as a means of assessing inhibitory control and perhaps self-control in animals. Typically, the task is difficult, and only specific manipulations have worked to allow primates to overcome the reversed contingencies. This includes using symbolic stimuli, adding another layer to the story, and more value to the task itself as a measure perhaps of forms of cognitive control in other species. I will discuss some of these empirical results, including from other chimpanzees who were given variations of the task, and how these studies have influenced numerous areas within comparative cognitive science.

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Author note

The author thanks the organizers of this special issue for the invitation to provide this paper. He also thanks Dr. Sally Boysen for her many creative contributions to comparative cognition. The research reported from his lab was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, as well as the College of Arts and Sciences at Georgia State University.

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Correspondence to Michael J. Beran.

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Beran, M.J. I’ll (not) take that: The reverse-reward contingency task as a test of self-control and inhibition. Learn Behav (2022).

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  • Self-control
  • Inhibition
  • Delay of gratification
  • Chimpanzees
  • Primates
  • Reverse-reward task
  • Numerical cognition