There’s a new and unique behavior of chimpanzees being documented in the journal Biology Letters that I think the primatologist in you will appreciate. Chimpanzee Control

Chimps that have a hard time acquiring lots of food purposely busy themselves in order to avoid the temptation of gorging themselves straight away. The study shows that, these chimps welcome a distraction that takes the mind off the impulsive urge to splash out.

Nature has a news article summarizing this behavior,

Researchers at Georgia State University in Atlanta presented four chimps with a plastic container attached to a tube that gradually filled the container with candy. Opening it, however, would cut off the flow of food. Chimps were kept away from the candy machine but were allowed to observe it, so learning that the longer they waited, the bigger the treat they would get.

But as many of us know, self-control doesn’t come easily. Studies of human children have shown that the average five-year-old is rarely able to resist eating sweets, even if promised that abstinence will be rewarded with even more sweets later on.

The Georgia researchers, Theodore Evans and Michael Beran, guessed that chimps would have a good chance at resisting the candies if given a range of toys and other distractions to play with. “We chose a set of items they are known to have an interest in,” explains Evans. “They enjoy brushing their teeth, for example; we gave them magazines so they could look at the pictures; and they enjoy different types of fasteners, zips and clips that they can take apart.”

The chimps resisted going for the accumulating candies for longer when given access to the toys, showing that play did indeed take their minds off food.

And they were more likely to play with the toys when the candies were accessible than when they were visible but behind a barrier. This suggests that they actively chose to use the toys as a distraction, rather than simply playing for the fun of it.”

The implications of this behavior is summarized by one of the authors, Theodore Evans,

“Controlling their impulses could benefit chimps in the wild when deciding where and when to look for the best food… “Self-control may relate back to their feeding ecology — should they eat this food here now, or should they travel down the road and potentially find some nice fruit?”

Chimps low down in the troop social hierarchy often have to wait their turn for the best fruit… Perhaps self-distraction helps them pass the time…”

The DOI link to the article is currently not active, but that’s because the journal probably hasn’t gotten around to publish it. Check the link in a couple days time, and I bet it’ll work.

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