Chimpanzees with higher intelligence have stronger self control

The most well-known biological study on self-control is the infamous “marshmallow test”, where children at Standford University in the 1960s were given the choice of a single marshmallow or the option to wait to earn two marshmallows. The children that decided to wait for the larger reward rather than to give into the temptation of the small immediate reward also performed well on general intelligence tests.

It turns out the same behavioural and intelligence link exists in our primate cousins. Georgia State scientists Michael J. Beran and William D. Hopkins have published their findings in Current Biology of a Hybrid Delay Task conducted with chimps. The task tracks how often and how long chimpanzees choose to wait for a larger, better reward rather than taking a smaller reward immediately. The Primate Cognitive Test was performed afterwards as a test of general intelligence that include looking at their ability to carry out tasks such as following hand gestures.

The chimps that scored the highest on intelligence were also the best at the delayed gratification test, which correlated proportionately – the primates that waited the longest, had the highest intelligence scores.

Beran has commented in a press release, “The fact that this link between self-control and intelligence exists in species other than humans may demonstrate an evolutionary basis for the role that willpower plays in general intelligence. Future research could clarify whether the relationship also exists in other primates and even non-primate species.”


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