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Chimps keep busy to control their urges

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    Chimps keep busy to control their urges * 00:01 22 August 2007 * NewScientist.com news service * Roxanne Khamsi If you have ever busied yourself with chores to
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 22, 2007

      Chimps keep busy to control their urges

          * 00:01 22 August 2007
          * NewScientist.com news service
          * Roxanne Khamsi

      If you have ever busied yourself with chores to avoid raiding the fridge, or picked up a crossword puzzle to avoid smoking a cigarette, you know that keeping busy can help you resist temptation. Now it seems chimpanzees are also able to distract themselves to control their urges, according to a new study.

      In the experiment, the primates distracted themselves by playing with toys in order to avoid giving in to the temptation of eating instantly available candy so they could obtain even more treats at a later time.

      Ted Evans at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia, who led the study, says that the new findings add to a growing body of evidence that some non-human primates possess greater control over their actions than many scientists had previously thought.

      Previous research has shown that children will entertain themselves with toys as a way to avoid eating a small candy treat when they know that waiting longer will earn them an even better sweet reward. Evans and his colleagues studied four adult chimpanzees to find out if non-human primates also use this type of creative tactic to control urges.
      Purposeful play

      A food dispenser inside each of the animals' cages would release a piece of Skittles candy into a container within their reach continuously every 30 seconds, beeping to alert them each time. The chimps could choose either to take the sweet immediately from the container, in which case the machine would stop dispensing, or they could wait and receive many more treats.

      After being trained up to anticipate sweets and without anything to busy themselves, the chimps would wait 6 minutes on average before giving in and taking the candy. So on average they would get 12 Skittles.

      However, when researchers gave the chimps "toys" that the animals find entertaining, such as old celebrity magazines and toothbrushes, they succeeded in waiting about 50% longer – around 9 minutes – before pouncing on the candy. "They actually enjoy brushing their teeth," says Evans.

      And the longer the chimps played with the toys, the longer they were able to control their urge to go after the treats and the more candy they would get.
      Deliberate distraction

      In a third part of the experiment, the chimpanzees had access to the toys, but the candy dispenser released the treats into a container beyond their grasp.

      In this scenario, the animals played with the toys for only about five minutes. By comparison, when the chimps did have access to the candy, they entertained themselves with the toys for seven minutes, on average. This suggests to Evans that the chimps actively used the toys as a way to bide their time and were not simply passively distracted by the play items.

      Although chimps seemed to be able to control their impulses by distracting themselves, Evans notes that preliminary studies in his lab on macaques suggest that monkeys cannot employ creative means to resist the temptation to grab a food reward.

      Journal reference: Biology Letters (DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2007.0399)
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