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Monkeys, like humans, can “choke under pressure”

A new study led by Georgia State University has found that, similarly to humans, monkeys can become stressed when they need to perform in high-pressure situations. Thus, the phenomenon of “choking under pressure” does not seem to be a consequence of humans’ advanced cognitive skills coupled with societal pressures, as scientists previously thought, but rather a phylogenetically older response shared by other animals.

In order to assess if non-human primates experience such phenomena, the researchers built an experimental protocol involving tufted capuchin monkeys living in groups at Georgia State’s Language Research Center. The monkeys were given a computerized matching task with some trials typical in difficulty and others cued to be harder, and having higher rewards and timeout consequences for wrong answers.

The scientists found that there was significant variation in how individual monkeys responded to the trials when the difference in difficulty was removed, suggesting that, for some monkeys, the pressures related to high stakes significantly impacted performance.

“There are several different explanations for why humans might ‘choke’ or ‘thrive’ under pressure, but all of these explanations have traditionally considered this sensitivity to pressure to be a human-specific trait,” said study lead author Meg Sosnowski, a doctoral student at Georgia State University.

“Our new results provide the first evidence that other species also might be susceptible to this influence of pressure, and that our responses to that pressure are, in part, the result of individual variation in an evolutionarily common stress response.”

The scientists also discovered that levels of cortisol (a naturally occurring biomarker of stress) were strongly related to the monkeys’ performance. Higher levels of cortisol were associated with a lower ability to successfully complete the high-pressure tasks, adding evidence to the hypothesis that an individual’s long-term stress state can impact cognitive performance.

“This opens the door not just to explore how responses to pressure might have impacted the evolution of cognition, but also provides clues pointing us to potential avenues that might mitigate performance deficits, both in humans and in other species,” concluded Sosnowski.

The study is published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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