Preference transitivity and symbolic representation in capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella)

Elsa Addessi, Alessandra Mancini, Lara Crescimbene, Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, Elisabetta Visalberghi

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Background: Can non-human animals comprehend and employ symbols? The most convincing empirical evidence comes from language-trained apes, but little is known about this ability in monkeys. Tokens can be regarded as symbols since they are inherently non-valuable objects that acquire an arbitrarily assigned value upon exchange with an experimenter. Recent evidence suggested that capuchin monkeys, which diverged from the human lineage 35 million years ago, can estimate, represent and combine token quantities. A fundamental and open question is whether monkeys can reason about symbols in ways similar to how they reason about real objects. Methodology/Principal Findings: Here we examined this broad question in the context of economic choice behavior. Specifically, we assessed whether, in a symbolic context, capuchins' preferences satisfy transitivity - a fundamental trait of rational decision-making. Given three options A, B and C, transitivity holds true if A≥B, B≥C and A≥C (where ≥ indicates preference). In this study, we trained monkeys to exchange three types of tokens for three different foods. We then compared choices monkeys made between different types of tokens with choices monkeys made between the foods. Qualitatively, capuchins' preferences revealed by the way of tokens were similar to those measured with the actual foods. In particular, when choosing between tokens, monkeys displayed strict economic preferences and their choices satisfied transitivity. Quantitatively, however, values measured by the way of tokens differed systematically from those measured with the actual foods. In particular, for any pair of foods, the relative value of the preferred food increased when monkeys chose between the corresponding tokens. Conclusions/Significance: These results indicate that indeed capuchins are capable of treating tokens as symbols. However, as they do so, capuchins experience the cognitive burdens imposed by symbolic representation.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2414
JournalPloS one
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 11 2008


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