Decision-making and cognitive control

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.

[PDF] Abstract
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. 

[PDF] Abstract
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.

 

Capuchins punish those who have more

Leimgruber, K. L., Rosati, A. G., & Santos, L. R. (2016). Capuchins punish those who have more. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37, 236–244.

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Punishment of non-cooperators is important for the maintenance of large-scale cooperation in humans, but relatively little is known about the relationship between punishment and cooperation across phylogeny. The current study examined second-party punishment behavior in a nonhuman primate species known for its cooperative tendencies—the brown capuchin monkey (Cebus apella). We found that capuchins consistently punished a conspecific partner who gained possession of a food resource, regardless of whether the unequal distribution of this resource was intentional on the part of the partner. A non-social comparison confirmed that punishment behavior was not due to frustration, nor did punishment stem from increased emotional arousal. Instead, punishment behavior in capuchins appears to be decidedly social in nature, as monkeys only pursued punitive actions when such actions directly decreased the welfare of a recently endowed conspecific. This pattern of results is consistent with two features central to human cooperation: spite and inequity aversion, suggesting that the evolutionary origins of some human-like punitive tendencies may extend even deeper than previously thought.

 

Reward type modulates human risk preferences

Rosati, A. G., & Hare, B. (2016). Reward type modulates human risk preferences. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37, 159–168.

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Money and biological rewards differ in many ways. Yet studies of human decision-making typically involve money, whereas nonhuman studies involve food. We therefore examined how context shifts human risk preferences to illuminate the evolution of decision-making. First, we assessed peoples’ risk preferences across food, prizes, and money in a task where individuals received real rewards and learned about payoffs through experience. We found that people were relatively more risk-seeking for both food and prizes compared to money—indicating that people may treat abstract reward markers differently from concrete rewards. Second, we compared human risk preferences for food with the performance of our closest phylogenetic relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus), in order to illuminate the evolutionary origins of human decision-making strategies. In fact, human and chimpanzees were both relatively more risk-seeking compared to bonobos. Finally, we investigated why people respond differently to money versus concrete rewards when making decisions. We found that people were more risk-prone when making decisions about money that was constrained as a store of value, compared to money that could be freely exchanged. This shows that people are sensitive to money’s usefulness as a store of value that can be used to acquire other types of rewards. Our results indicate that humans exhibit different preferences when making risky decisions about money versus food, an important consideration for comparative research. Furthermore, different psychological processes may underpin decisions about abstract rewards compared to concrete rewards.

 

Bonobos and chimpanzees exhibit human-like framing effects

Krupenye, C., Rosati, A. G., & Hare, B. (2015). Bonobos and chimpanzees exhibit human-like framing effects. Biology Letters, 11, 20140527.

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Humans exhibit framing effects when making choices, appraising decisions involving losses differently from those involving gains. To directly test for the evolutionary origin of this bias, we examined decision-making in humans’ closest living relatives: bonobos (Pan paniscus) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). We presented the largest sample of non-humans to date (n = 40) with a simple task requiring minimal experience. Apes made choices between a ‘framed’ option that provided preferred food, and an alternative option that provided a constant amount of intermediately preferred food. In the gain condition, apes experienced a positive ‘gain’ event in which the framed option was initially presented as one piece of food but sometimes was augmented to two. In the loss condition, apes experienced a negative ‘loss’ event in which they initially saw two pieces but sometimes received only one. Both conditions provided equal pay-offs, but apes chose the framed option more often in the positive ‘gain’ frame. Moreover, male apes were more susceptible to framing than were females. These results suggest that some human economic biases are shared through common descent with other apes and highlight the importance of comparative work in understanding the origins of individual differences in human choice.

 

Cognitive capacities for cooking in chimpanzees

Warneken, F. & Rosati, A. G. (2015). Cognitive capacities for cooking in chimpanzees. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 282, 20150229.

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The transition to a cooked diet represents an important shift in human ecology and evolution. Cooking requires a set of sophisticated cognitive abilities, including causal reasoning, self-control and anticipatory planning. Do humans uniquely possess the cognitive capacities needed to cook food? We address whether one of humans’ closest relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes), possess the domain-general cognitive skills needed to cook. Across nine studies, we show that chimpanzees: (i) prefer cooked foods; (ii) comprehend the transformation of raw food that occurs when cooking, and generalize this causal understanding to new contexts; (iii) will pay temporal costs to acquire cooked foods; (iv) are willing to actively give up possession of raw foods in order to transform them; and (v) can transport raw food as well as save their raw food in anticipation of future opportunities to cook. Together, our results indicate that several of the fundamental psychological abilities necessary to engage in cooking may have been shared with the last common ancestor of apes and humans, predating the control of fire.

The evolutionary roots of human decision-making

Santos, L. R., & Rosati, A. G. (2015). The evolutionary roots of human decision-making. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 321-347.

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Humans exhibit a suite of biases when making economic decisions. We review recent research on the origins of human decision making by examining whether similar choice biases are seen in nonhuman primates, our closest phylogenetic relatives. We propose that comparative studies can provide insight into four major questions about the nature of human choice biases that cannot be addressed by studies of our species alone. First, research with other primates can address the evolution of human choice biases and identify shared versus human-unique tendencies in decision making. Second, primate studies can constrain hypotheses about the psychological mechanisms underlying such biases. Third, comparisons of closely related species can identify when distinct mechanisms underlie related biases by examining evolutionary dissociations in choice strategies. Finally, comparative work can provide insight into the biological rationality of economically irrational preferences.