Decision-making and cognitive control

Variation in primate decision-making under uncertainty and the roots of human economic behaviour

De Petrillo, F. & Rosati, A.G. (2021). Variation in primate decision-making under uncertainty and the roots of human economic behaviour. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 376: 20190671

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Uncertainty is a ubiquitous component of human economic behaviour, yet people can vary in their preferences for risk across populations, individuals, and different points in time. As uncertainty also characterizes many aspects of animal decision-making, comparative research can help evaluate different potential mechanisms that generates this variation, including the role of biological differences or maturational change versus cultural learning, as well as identify human-unique components of economic decision-making. Here we examine decision-making under risk across primates, our closest relatives. We first review theoretical approaches and current methods for understanding decision-making in animals. We then assess current evidence for variation in animal preferences between species and populations; between individuals based on personality, sex, and age; and finally, between different contexts and individual states. We then use this primate data to evaluate the processes that can shape human decision-making strategies and identify the primate foundations of human economic behaviour.


Decision-making in animals: rational choices and adaptive strategies

De Petrillo, F. & Rosati, A.G. (2021). Decision-making in animals: rational choices and adaptive strategies. In: Cambridge Handbook of Animal Cognition (A. Kaufman, J. Call, & J. Kaufman, eds.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 770-791.

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Humans face a myriad of choices every day, from simple decisions about what to eat for lunch or how much time to spend on leisure versus work, to more complex decisions like selecting between competitive jobs offers or deciding whether or not get married. How do we make these choices? This question has spurred research in decision science across fields including economics, psychology, and biology, and has led to the development of several normative theories and models predicting how decision-makers should act to choose optimally.

Logical inferences from visual and auditory information in ruffed lemurs and sifakas

De Petrillo, F. & Rosati, A.G. (2020). Logical inferences from visual and auditory information in ruffed lemurs and sifakas. Animal Behaviour, 164: 193-204

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Inference by exclusion, or the ability to select a correct course of action by systematically excluding other potential alternatives, is a form of logical inference that allow individuals to solve problems without complete information. Current comparative research shows that several bird, mammal, and primate species can find hidden food through inference by exclusion. Yet there is also wide variation in how successful different species are, as well kinds of sensory information they can use to do so. An important question is therefore why some species are better at engaging in logical inference than others. Here, we investigate the evolution of logical reasoning abilities by comparing two strepsirrhine primate species that vary in dietary ecology: frugivorous ruffed lemur (Varecia spp.) and folivorous Coquerel’s sifakas (Propithecus coquereli). Across two studies, we examined their abilities to locate food using direct information versus inference from exclusion and using both visual and auditory information. In Study 1, we assessed whether these lemurs could make inferences when full visual and auditory information about the two potential locations of food were provided. In Study 2, we then compared their ability to make direct inferences versus inferences by exclusion in both the visual and auditory domains. We found that both lemur species can use visual information to find food, but that only ruffed lemurs were also able to use auditory cues, mirroring differences in the complexity of their wild ecology. We further found that, unlike many anthropoid species tested to date, both strepsirrhine species failed to make inferences by exclusion. These results highlight the importance of natural history in understanding the evolution of logical inference, and help reconstruct the deeper phylogeny of primate cognition.


Economic trust in young children

Rosati, A.G., Benjamin, N., Pieloch, K., Warneken, F. (2019). Economic trust in young children. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 286: 20190822.

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Mutually beneficial interactions often require trust that others will reciprocate. Such interpersonal trust is foundational to evolutionarily unique aspects of human social behaviour, such as economic exchange. In adults, interpersonal trust is often assessed using the ‘trust game’, in which a lender invests resources in a trustee who may or may not repay the loan. This game captures two crucial elements of economic exchange: the potential for greater mutual benefits by trusting in others, and the moral hazard that others may betray that trust. While adults across cultures can trust others, little is known about the developmental origins of this crucial cooperative ability. We developed the first version of the trust game for use with young children that addresses these two components of trust. Across three experiments, we demonstrate that 4- and 6-year-olds recognize opportunities to invest in others, sharing more when reciprocation is possible than in a context measuring pure generosity. Yet, children become better with age at investing in trustworthy over untrustworthy partners, indicating that this cooperative skill emerges later in ontogeny. Together, our results indicate that young children can engage in complex economic exchanges involving judgements about interpersonal trust and show increasing sensitivity to appropriate partners over development.

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.

Ecological rationality: convergent decision-making in apes and capuchins

De Petrillo, F. & Rosati, A.G. (2019). Ecological rationality: convergent decision-making in apes and capuchins. Behavioural Processes, 164: 201-213.

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Humans and other animals appear to defy many principles of economic ‘rationality’ when making decisions. Here, we use an ecological rationality framework to examine patterns of decision-making across species to illu- minate the origins of these strategies. We argue that examples of convergent evolution—the independent emergence of similar traits in species facing similar environments—can provide a crucial test for evolutionary theories of decision-making. We first review theoretical work from evolutionary biology proposing that many economically-puzzling patterns of decision-making may be biologically adaptive when considering the en- vironment in which they are made. We then focus on convergence in ecology, behavior, and cognition of apes and capuchin monkeys as an example of how to apply this ecological framework across species. We review evidence that wild chimpanzees and capuchins, despite being distantly related, both exploit ecological niches characterized by costly extractive foraging and risky hunting behaviors. We then synthesize empirical studies comparing these species’ decision preferences. In fact, both capuchins and chimpanzees exhibit high tolerance for delays in inter-temporal choice tasks, as well as a preference for risky outcomes when making decisions under uncertainty. Moreover, these species exhibit convergent psychological mechanisms for choices, including emotional responses to decision outcomes and sensitivity to social context. Finally, we argue that identifying the evolutionary pressures driving the emergence of specific decision strategies can shed light into the adaptive nature of human economic preferences.


Chimpanzee cooperation is fast and independent from self-control

Rosati, A.G., DiNicola, L.M., & Buckholtz, J.W. (2018). Chimpanzee cooperation is fast and independent from self-control. Psychological Science, 29: 1832-1845.

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Large-scale cooperation is a hallmark of our species that appears unique amongst primates. Yet the evolutionary mechanisms that drove the emergence of human-like patterns of cooperation remain unclear. Studying the cognitive processes underlying cooperative behavior in apes, our closest living relatives, can help identify these mechanisms. Accordingly, we employed a novel test battery to assess the willingness of forty chimpanzees to donate resources, instrumentally help others, and punish a culpable thief. We found that chimpanzees were faster to make prosocial than selfish choices, and that more prosocial individuals made the fastest responses. Further, two measures of self-control did not predict variation in prosocial responding, and individual performance across cooperative tasks did not covary. These results show that chimpanzees and humans share key cognitive processes for cooperation, despite differences in the scope of their cooperative behaviors.

Chimpanzee cognition and the roots of the human mind

Rosati, A.G. (2017). Chimpanzee cognition and the roots of the human mind. In: Chimpanzees and Human Evolution (M. Muller, R. Wrangham & D. Pilbeam, eds.). Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, pp. 703-745.

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The origins of the human mind have been a puzzle ever since Darwin (1871, 1872). Despite striking continuities in the behavior of humans and nonhumans, our species also exhibits a suite of abilities that diverge from the rest of the animal kingdom: we create and utilize complex technology, pass cultural knowledge from generation to generation, and cooperate across numerous and diverse contexts. Why do humans exhibit these abilities, but other animals (mostly) do not? This is a fundamental question in biology, psychology, and philosophy. This puzzle involves two main parts. The first is concerned with identifying the psychological capacities that are unique to humans. This phylogenetic question can be addressed through careful comparisons of humans and other animals to pinpoint the cognitive traits that are likely derived in our species. The second is concerned with the function of these capacities, and the context in which they arose. This evolutionary question examines why, from an ultimate perspective, we evolved these specialized capacities in the first place. Solving these puzzles poses a special challenge because it is only possible to directly measure the cognition of living animals. The bodies of extinct species leave traces in the fossil record, and even some behavioral traits exhibit well-understood relationships with physical traits—such as relationships between dentition and dietary ecology, or mating system and sexual size dimorphism. These relationships provide important benchmarks when biologists infer the behavior of extinct species. Unfortunately, cognition does not fossilize, and neither do the brains that generate cognitive abilities. Even those features of neuroanatomy that do leave some trace in the fossil record—such as brain size or particular anatomical landmarks—are often related to the kinds of complex cognitive capacities potentially unique to humans in a coarse fashion. As such, identifying derived human cognitive traits requires reconstructing the mind of the last common ancestor of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), bonobos (Pan paniscus), and humans (Homo sapiens). This reconstruction then can be used to infer what cognitive characteristics have changed in the human lineage.

Ecological variation in cognition: Insights from bonobos and chimpanzees

Rosati, A.G. (2017). Ecological variation in cognition: Insights from bonobos and chimpanzees. In: Bonobos: Unique in Mind, Brain and Behavior (B. Hare & S. Yamamoto, eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 157-170. 

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Bonobos and chimpanzees are closely related, yet they exhibit important differences in their wild socio-ecology. Whereas bonobos live in environments with less seasonal variation and more access to fallback foods, chimpanzees face more competition over spatially distributed, variable resources. This chapter argues that bonobo and chimpanzee cognition show psychological signatures of their divergent wild ecology. Current evidence shows that despite strong commonalities in many cognitive domains, apes express targeted differences in specific cognitive skills critical for wild foraging behaviours. In particular, bonobos exhibit less accurate spatial memory, reduced levels of patience and greater risk aversion than do chimpanzees. These results have implications for understanding the evolution of human cognition, as studies of apes are a critical tool for modelling the last common ancestor of humans with nonhuman apes. Linking comparative cognition to species’ natural foraging behaviour can begin to address the ultimate reason for why differences in cognition emerge across species.

Foraging cognition: Reviving the ecological intelligence hypothesis

Rosati, A. G. (2017). Foraging cognition: Reviving the ecological intelligence hypothesis. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21, 691-702.

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What are the origins of intelligent behavior? The demands associated with living in complex social groups have been the favored explanation for the evolution of primate cognition in general and human cognition in particular. However, recent comparative research indicates that ecological variation can also shape cognitive abilities. I synthesize the emerging evidence that ‘foraging cognition’ – skills used to exploit food resources, including spatial memory, decision-making, and inhibitory control – varies adaptively across primates. These findings provide a new framework for the evolution of human cognition, given our species’ dependence on costly, high-value food resources. Understanding the origins of the human mind will require an integrative theory accounting for how humans are unique in both our sociality and our ecology.

Decision making under uncertainty: preferences, biases, and choice

Rosati, A. G. (2017). Decision making under uncertainty: preferences, biases, and choice. In: APA Handbook of Comparative Psychology, Volume 2. (J. Call, ed.). American Psychological Association, pp. 329-357.

[PDF]  Abstract

Imagine a choice between two potential jobs: a position that is stable but intellectually mundane, or one that is more exciting but offers only short contract with some chance of renewal. These kinds of decisions can be agonizing because they involve uncertainty. While the first job option is a known quantity, the second job offers the possibility of being more fulfilling, but also the possibility of being let go in the near future. This uncertainty means that it is not possible to know the exact consequences of the decision in advance, making it difficult to judge the best course of action. Many important decisions involve this same sort of uncertainty—such as whether to invest in a new business, commit to a partner, or pursue a medical treatment. Yet uncertainty is not something only humans experience: it is pervasive in the natural world, and all animals must sometimes make decisions without complete information about the consequences of their actions. Consequently, illuminating how decision-makers respond to uncertainty is a problem of interest across both the social and biological sciences. This review will integrate theory from economics, psychology, and biology in order to understand the psychological mechanisms that animals use to make decisions under uncertainty, as well as what biological function these mechanisms might have. I further argue that comparative research is a powerful tool for understanding the nature of economic decision-making. Discovering that a particular decision-making pattern is widely shared across humans and other species—or conversely, unique to humans alone—can provide important insights about the types of experiences that engender these psychological processes.

The evolution of primate executive function: from response control to strategic decision-making

Rosati, A. G. (2017). The evolution of primate executive function: from response control to strategic decision-making. In: Evolution of Nervous Systems, Second Edition, Volume 3 (J. Kaas & L. Krubitzer, eds.). Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 423-437.

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Human cognition is permeated by self-control: the ability to engage in complex, goal-oriented behaviors rather than just react to the moment at hand. This chapter examines the evolutionary roots of these abilities by comparing the psychological capacities of humans and other primates. In fact, there is marked variation in how different primate species control their motoric responses to inhibit prepotent but ineffectual actions, engage in strategic decision-making to determine the best course of action, and learn and update their responses when contingencies change. Understanding how and why this variation emerged can shed light on the origins of human cognition.

Spontaneous metacognition in rhesus monkeys

Rosati, A. G., & Santos, L. R. (2016). Spontaneous metacognition in rhesus monkeys. Psychological Science , 27, 1181 –1191.

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Metacognition is the ability to think about thinking. Although monitoring and controlling one’s knowledge is a key feature of human cognition, its evolutionary origins are debated. In the current study, we examined whether rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta; N = 120) could make metacognitive inferences in a one-shot decision. Each monkey experienced one of four conditions, observing a human appearing to hide a food reward in an apparatus consisting of either one or two tubes. The monkeys tended to search the correct location when they observed this baiting event, but engaged in information seeking—by peering into a center location where they could check both potential hiding spots—if their view had been occluded and information seeking was possible. The monkeys only occasionally approached the center when information seeking was not possible. These results show that monkeys spontaneously use information about their own knowledge states to solve naturalistic foraging problems, and thus provide the first evidence that nonhumans exhibit information-seeking responses in situations with which they have no prior experience.

How comparative cognition can shed light on human evolution: Response to Beran et al.’s discussion of “Cognitive capacities for cooking in chimpanzees”

Rosati, A. G., & Warneken, F. (2016). How comparative cognition can shed light on human evolution: Response to Beran et al.’s discussion of “Cognitive capacities for cooking in chimpanzees”. Learning & Behavior, 44, 109-115.

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We recently reported a study (Warneken & Rosati, 2015) examining whether chimpanzees possess several cognitive capacities that are critical to engage in cooking. In a subsequent commentary, Beran, Hopper, de Waal, Sayers, and Brosnan (2015) asserted that our paper has several flaws. Their commentary (1) critiques some aspects of our methodology and argues that our work does not constitute evidence that chimpanzees can actually cook; (2) claims that these results are old news, as previous work had already demonstrated that chimpanzees possess most or all of these capacities; and, finally, (3) argues that comparative psychological studies of chimpanzees cannot adequately address questions about human evolution, anyway. However, their critique of the premise of our study simply reiterates several points we made in the original paper. To quote ourselves: “As chimpanzees neither control fire nor cook food in their natural behavior, these experiments therefore focus not on whether chimpanzees can actually cook food, but rather whether they can apply their cognitive skills to novel problems that emulate cooking” (Warneken & Rosati, 2015, p. 2). Furthermore, the methodological issues they raise are standard points about psychological research with animals—many of which were addressed synthetically across our 9 experiments, or else are orthogonal to our claims. Finally, we argue that comparative studies of extant apes (and other nonhuman species) are a powerful and indispensable method for understanding human cognitive evolution.

What’s in a frame? Response to comments on “Bonobos and chimpanzees exhibit human-like framing effects”.

Krupenye, C., Rosati, A. G., & Hare, B. (2016). What’s in a frame? Response to comments on “Bonobos and chimpanzees exhibit human-like framing effects”. Biology Letters, 12, 20150959.

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We recently reported a study where chimpanzees and bonobos faced decisions between a ‘framed’ option that provided either one or two pieces of fruit, and an alternative option that always provided a constant number of peanuts. We found that apes (especially males) chose the framed option more when it was presented as a gain—apes initially saw one piece of fruit, but sometimes got two after making a choice—than when it was framed as a loss—apes saw two fruits, but sometimes received only one. We argued that the apes showed human-like framing effects, because they judged the fruit option as more desirable when it was presented as a gain than as a loss, despite equivalent payoffs. In a commentary, Kanngiesser & Woike claimed that the apes actually exhibited a pattern opposite of that typically seen in humans. They further highlighted important differences between human and non- human animal decision-making tasks. We believe that the commentary missed a critical aspect of our methodology, as they interpreted our results in terms of risky choice framing—or the reflection effect—whereas our task was designed to probe attribute framing.


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