Rhesus macaques use probabilities to predict future events

De Petrillo, F. & Rosati, A.G. (2019). Rhesus macaques use probabilities to predict future events. Evolution and Human Behavior, 40: 436-446.

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Humans can use an intuitive sense of statistics to make predictions about uncertain future events, a cognitive skill that underpins logical and mathematical reasoning. Recent research shows that some of these abilities for statistical inferences can emerge in preverbal infants and non-human primates such as apes and capuchins. An important question is therefore whether animals share the full complement of intuitive reasoning abilities demonstrated by humans, as well as what evolutionary contexts promote the emergence of such skills. Here, we examined whether free-ranging rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) can use probability information to infer the most likely outcome of a random lottery, in the first test of whether primates can make such inferences in the absence of direct prior experience. We developed a novel expectancy-violation looking time task, adapted from prior studies of infants, in order to assess the monkeys’ expectations. In Study 1, we confirmed that monkeys (n = 20) looked similarly at different sampled items if they had no prior knowledge about the population they were drawn from. In Study 2, monkeys (n = 80) saw a dynamic ‘lottery’ machine containing a mix of two types of fruit outcomes, and then saw either the more common fruit (expected trial) or the relatively rare fruit (unexpected trial) fall from the machine. We found that monkeys looked longer when they witnessed the unexpected outcome. In Study 3, we confirmed that this effect depended on the causal relationship between the sample and the population, not visual mismatch: monkeys (n = 80) looked equally at both outcomes if the experimenter pulled the sampled item from her pocket. These results reveal that rhesus monkeys spontaneously use information about probability to reason about likely outcomes, and show how comparative studies of nonhumans can disentangle the evolutionary history of logical reasoning capacities.