International Study Compares Self-Control Across Species

May 21, 2014

Utah State University researchers have contributed to a worldwide collaborative study that measures the evolution of cognition in a variety of species, specifically the aspect of self-control.

USU researchers gather data on self-control of Coyotes in international collaborative study.
Credit National Park Service

Kerry Jordan, one of the USU researchers on the project, said this study is unique because it is it the first of its kind in which researchers used the same methods and tasks across species.  

"Researchers in the past have had to rely upon things like meta-analyses of data gathered at all different times using all different tasks, purporting to measure the same concept, or they’ve had to just test a couple species they might have access to themselves or with a couple of close collaborators," said Jordan. 

The study tested 36 species with two tasks measuring self-control.

The first task involved teaching the animals to get food within a darkened cylinder, replacing it with a transparent cylinder, then monitoring if animals exert self-control to use the mechanism instead of grabbing at the now-visible food.

In the second task, researchers would hide a food item in one location, change the hiding spot and test whether the animal could inhibit its response to go immediately to the first hiding place and instead go to the new source.  

Jordan and her colleague Julie Young contributed data concerning coyotes for the study. Jordan said coyotes were greatly successful with the first task, with a correct reaching response of over 90%. However, she said they were not as successful with the food placement task.

"Animals’ performance on these two tasks highly correlated. So if a species did well on the first on the first task, they tended to do very well on the second task as well," said Jordan. "Coyote’s performance was still correlated overall, but less so than other species."

Jordan said coyotes did better than average across species when both tasks were taken into account.

The study found that absolute brain size mattered with self-control and that another aspect predicting performance was dietary breadth, especially with primates.

Jordan said future studies will likely make similar comparisons across species with different tasks and traits such as attention or social cognition.