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Monkeys with greater social tolerance have more self-control

A team of scientists led by the University of Portsmouth has recently found a significant connection between social organization and cognitive skills in monkeys, with the most socially tolerant species of macaques having greater self-control than their more authoritarian and violent counterparts. These findings could also shed new light on how humans evolved to become more cooperative and cognitively sophisticated.

Through a series of cognitive touchscreen tasks, the experts evaluated the performance of 66 macaques from the Medical Research Council Center for Macaques in the UK and the Center of Primatology of the University of Strasbourg in France to identify interspecies differences in impulsive behaviors. 

What the researchers learned 

The experiments revealed that Tonkean macaques, which get along with each other the most and tend to form diverse, complex relationships, exhibited better overall control of distractions, emotions, and actions compared to the less socially-tolerant long-tailed and rhesus macaques.

“This relationship between social tolerance and cognitive abilities could explain why Tonkean macaques are better at managing complex relationships with others,” said study lead author Louise Loyant, a doctoral student in Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology at Portsmouth.

“This is important, as it improves our understanding of our own social evolution. Macaques live in complex communities, not too dissimilar from our own, and we can learn a lot from them. Existing research on human inhibitory control, or self-control, suggests the better a person is at managing their emotions and reactions, the more successful they’re likely to be in life; whether that be in relationships, work, or just generally. Our results support this hypothesis.”

Environmental pressures play a role

Moreover, the investigation highlighted the important role ecological factors play on self-control skills. According to the researchers, the different risks and environmental pressures faced by each species have likely shaped their behaviors, emotions, and impulsivity levels. 

For instance, long-tailed and rhesus macaques living in areas with a greater number of predators usually display more reactive and cautious behaviors, while Tonkean macaques that face lower risks of predation exhibit quieter and less reactive behaviors. Thus, both social and ecological factors are likely to influence self-control skills in primates.

“A macaque living in a more competitive environment would benefit from learning how to contain inappropriate behaviors, like feeding or mating, if they’re around others higher up in the social pyramid. But there’s also the hypothesis that our closest primate species have evolved over time to have increased brain size and higher cognitive performances, including better self-control,” said senior author Marine Joly, an expert in the evolution of human and non-human primates at Portsmouth.

“Our findings support both of these potential explanations, as well as suggest that species living in more complex societies might have better socio-cognitive skills too, including perception, attention, memory, and action planning.”

However, since the study has some limitations – such as the small sample size and some prior cognitive testing experience among the species – further research is needed involving a larger cohort and a closer evaluation of monkeys’ complex behaviors. The research is published in the journal Animal Cognition.

More about self control

Self-control, often referred to as self-regulation, is the ability to manage one’s behavior, emotions, and thoughts that often leads to long-term benefits. It is considered a crucial skill in achieving personal and professional success.

This trait enables individuals to resist immediate desires and impulses in favor of actions that align with their long-term goals. Self-control is also closely related to the concept of willpower, the capacity to resist short-term temptations to meet long-term goals.

Self-control has been extensively studied in various disciplines such as psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics. In psychology, for instance, the concept of self-control is a key element of many theories of personality and development. Some psychological research, such as the famous “marshmallow test”, has demonstrated that early self-control abilities can predict important outcomes later in life, such as academic success and physical health.

In the context of social interactions and group living, self-control can also refer to the ability to regulate one’s behavior in ways that are socially acceptable or beneficial for group cohesion.

However, self-control is not always beneficial. There can be circumstances where excessive self-control can lead to over-regulation, denying oneself the experience of pleasure or joy, or to mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Thus, a balance is necessary.

Self-control is not a fixed trait; it can be improved with practice and training. Techniques like mindfulness meditation, cognitive behavioral therapies, and certain types of physical exercise are often suggested to improve self-control.


By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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