Capuchin and rhesus monkeys but not humans show cognitive flexibility in an optional-switch task

Abstract

Learned rules help us accurately solve many problems, but by blindly following a strategy, we sometimes fail to find more efficient alternatives. Previous research found that humans are more susceptible to this “cognitive set” bias than other primates in a nonverbal computer task. We modified the task to test one hypothesis for this difference, that working memory influences the advantage of taking a shortcut. During training, 60 humans, 7 rhesus macaques, and 22 capuchin monkeys learned to select three icons in sequence. They then completed 96 baseline trials, in which only this learned rule could be used, and 96 probe trials, in which they could also immediately select the final icon. Rhesus and capuchin monkeys took this shortcut significantly more often than humans. Humans used the shortcut more in this new, easier task than in previous work, but started using it significantly later than the monkeys. Some participants of each species also used an intermediate strategy; they began the learned rule but switched to the shortcut after selecting the first item in the sequence. We suggest that these species differences arise from differences in rule encoding and in the relative efficiency of exploiting a familiar strategy versus exploring alternatives.

Watzek J, Pope SM, Brosnan SF (2019) Capuchin and rhesus monkeys but not humans show cognitive flexibility in an optional-switch task. Sci Rep 9:13195. doi:10.1038/s41598-019-49658-0 · [publisher’s version] · [dataset]