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Gibbon behaviour could hold key to human cognition

1 June 2016


An Abertay psychologist has been awarded £121,780 by The Leverhulme Trust to investigate in a new way how, and to what extent, previous experience affects our cognitive abilities and behaviour.

Dr Clare Cunningham – Head of the University’s Division of Psychology – will conduct the research at the Gibbon Conservation Centre in California.

Understanding the level of influence the environment and our experiences within it have on our thinking and what we do is an important area of investigation because these factors can potentially change the way we learn and how we understand everything in the world around us.

It can affect our academic attainment, our skills development in both social and physical domains and, ultimately, our success in society.

However, there has been almost no progress towards gaining a better understanding of environmental influence on human behaviour and cognition to date, partly because of the complexity of the environments in which we live.

Dr Cunningham explains:

“As a species, we exist in a range of different social and economic environments: our upbringings differ, for example, and our opportunities for learning depend on our exposure to education. This means there are a lot of differences between individuals and these differences could have an influence on people’s cognition and behaviour.

“To overcome this, scientists often study non-human species – particularly primates – instead of humans, because the environment is more similar across individuals and it is much easier to manipulate factors such as potential for learning.

“However, we still often don’t know what task-relevant experience an individual animal brings to these types of test situations. And, even if we attempt to use subjects with comparable degrees of past experience with cognitive tasks, we often do not have data to know whether any opportunity to learn about a particular situation was in fact utilised.

“So that’s what we’ll be addressing in this study. The research will involve assessing the potential benefits gibbons gain from a period of familiarisation with objects that could help them get hold of a food reward.

“The Gibbon Conservation Centre where this research will take place is perfect for this: it’s a unique facility that houses approximately 45 gibbons in natural family groups that have had limited prior exposure to cognitive testing, so we’ll be able to get some extremely useful data about this from them.”

The study will investigate whether, given the opportunity to learn about the functionality of the objects prior to being tested, they outperform those who did not have the same opportunity to do so.

Unlike in previous research, the study will also assess the level of engagement the gibbons have with the objects during the familiarisation period, which will allow for more robust analyses of whether the gibbons actually made use of the learning opportunities they were given.

Finally, the study will assess whether age or sex of the individual influences the benefits gained, and whether cognitive performance is positively or negatively affected by the presence of other gibbons dependent on relationship quality between social partners.

This is important because, as well as life history differences changing how learning opportunities are exploited, the presence of other gibbons may also influence how individuals learn about objects, either in a familiarisation period or during subsequent demonstrations of the knowledge they’ve gained.

Dr Cunningham continues:

“Primates are social animals and rarely make decisions or solve problems in isolation, so the presence of others is an important feature of the learning environment.

“However, it is one that is rarely considered: other research teams that have asked questions relating to social context in problem-solving mostly use a simple dichotomy of presence or absence of another, which has generated conflicting results.

“In our study, we’ll assess relationship quality, because stable relationships – grounded in positive affiliative interactions – are likely to have different effects on learning and skill application compared to unstable relationships.

“Gibbons are one of the most diverse groups of extant apes, and occupy an interesting evolutionary ‘stepping stone’ along the trajectory from monkey to ape.

“However, there is very little data evaluating their cognitive abilities so – as well as investigating how previous experience affects our own cognitive abilities and behaviour – another significant aim of this study is to find out the level of understanding demonstrated by gibbons about physical properties that make objects useful in their environment.”

In the study, the gibbons will be separated into two groups: those who will be given the opportunity to interact with, and explore, the apparatus to be used in the tasks prior to the test, and those who will only see the apparatus for the first time when the test begins.

The gibbons will be presented with two different rakes placed on a table outside their enclosure, both baited with a food reward. One rake handle will be fully functional, but the other will be ‘broken’, presented with a visible gap along the handle’s length that renders the tool useless.

If the gibbons pull in the continuous rake, the reward will be drawn within their reach. However, if they select the broken rake, the rewards will not move towards them and will be removed by the researcher.

This first task allows the gibbons to make a choice based on the perception of a ‘gap’ in the rake’s length, without having to understand anything about connectedness.

Those that are successful in the first task will progress to a second task that uses the same paradigm, only this time, the gap in the broken rake will be pushed together to give the illusion of connectedness. To ensure the subjects ‘know’ that the rake is non-functional, the researcher will position the rakes as in the first task, with the gaps visible, in view of the subject, before pushing them together and allowing the ape to make their choice.

These, and other, tests will make it possible for the researchers to gain an understanding of how prior experience affects our problem-solving ability.

The project spans many interdisciplinary boundaries having relevance to ecology, animal behaviour, biology and conservation, as well as to the social sciences where it has implications not only in the fields of comparative and evolutionary cognition, but also for education and learning and developmental psychology.


For media enquiries please contact Kirsty Cameron T: 01382 308935 M: 07972172158 E:

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