Michael J. Beran, Ph.D.
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Last updated: 
September 1, 2021

 

Beran, M. J., & Evans, T. A. (2012).  Language-trained chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) delay gratification by choosing token exchange over immediate reward consumption.  American Journal of Primatology, 74, 864-870.

Token exchange inherently introduces an element of delay between behavior and reward and so token studies may help us better understand delay of gratification and self-control. To examine this possibility, we presented three language-trained chimpanzees with repeated choices involving different foods that could be eaten immediately or lexigram (graphic symbol) tokens that represented (and could be traded for) foods later. When both options were foods, chimpanzees always chose more preferred foods over less preferred foods. When both options were lexigram tokens representing those same foods, performance remained the same as chimpanzees selected the higher value token and then traded it for food. Then, when faced with choosing a token that could be traded later or choosing a food item that could be eaten immediately, most chimpanzees learned to make whatever response led to the more preferred food. They did this even when that meant selecting a high value lexigram token that could be traded only 2 to 3 min later instead of a medium value, but immediately available, food item. Thus, chimpanzees flexibly selected tokens even though such selections necessarily delayed gratification and required forgoing immediately available food. This finding illustrates the utility of symbolic token exchange for assessing self-control in nonhuman animals.

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