Social inhibition and behavioural flexibility when the context changes: a comparison across six primate species

Abstract

The ability to inhibit previously employed strategies and flexibly adjust behavioural responses to external conditions may be critical for individual survival. However, it is unclear which factors predict their distribution across species. Here, we investigated social inhibition and behavioural flexibility in six primate species (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, capuchin monkeys and spider monkeys) differing in terms of phylogenetic relatedness, foraging ecology and social organization. Depending on the social context, individuals could maximize their food intake by inhibiting the selection of a larger food reward in one condition (i.e. inhibition), but not in others, which required them to flexibly switch strategies across conditions (i.e. behavioural flexibility). Overall, our study revealed inter-specific differences in social inhibition and behavioural flexibility, which partially reflected differences in fission-fusion dynamics. In particular, orangutans (fission-fusion, frugivorous and with bread dietary) and chimpanzees (fission-fusion and frugivorous) showed the highest level of inhibitory skills, while mainly folivorous gorillas and frugivorous capuchin monkeys showed the lowest one. In terms of behavioural flexibility, orangutans and fission-fusion frugivorous spider monkeys were the best performers, while fission-fusion frugivorous bonobos and frugivorous capuchin monkeys were the worst ones. These results contribute to our understanding that inhibition and behavioural flexibility may be linked in more complex ways than usually thought, although both abilities play a crucial role in efficient problem solving.

Amici F, Call J, Watzek J, Brosnan SF, Aureli F (2018) Social inhibition and behavioural flexibility when the context changes: a comparison across six primate species. Sci Rep 8:3067. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-21496-6

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