Instant gratification: it’s a rush of endorphins and neural activity that can make even the most driven person make questionable choices—but could you delay your gratification as well as a child or a cuttlefish? You read that right; a cognitive test designed to measure the ability of a child to delay gratification has now been passed by a cephalopod, perhaps putting us all to shame.
The popular marshmallow test was a test designed to see if children could be left alone with a marshmallow by Stanford researchers in the 1970s. Children were told that if they waited 15 minutes and did not eat the marshmallow as soon as they were unsupervised that they would be rewarded for waiting by getting two marshmallows.
Since the inception of this test, it’s been applied to other species to explore how different animals process information about food, specifically food planning. It’s a special ability that we humans have—or so we thought! Subsequent marshmallow tests proved that other primates, birds, and dogs can pass the marshmallow test, turning our marshmallows into humble pie.
So what happens when you ask a creature to take the test who isn’t involved in social groups? Enter the cuttlefish, a loner cephalopod. In a customized version of the marshmallow test, cuttlefish relied on visual information from symbols on doors which either opened to a better treat at 10 seconds, 130 seconds, or a symbol that meant the door wouldn’t open at all.
The cuttlefish were given the bait of a prawn and the hope of winning a shrimp (one of cuttlefish’s most preferred food sources) behind the door which opened later. Two groups of cuttlefish were observed, with the control group only having access to the immediate prawn and a prawn behind a door which would not open.
Both groups were trained 6 times per day to associate the visual stimuli with the reward reinforcement. The group with the opening doors soon realized the bigger treat was behind the door which opened later and chose to wait, while the control group went straight for the accessible prey because they did not have the same training. What does this tell us? That rather than the cuttlefish who passed the test just using their instincts, they were outperforming the control group cuttlefish because they were actually using cognitive discernment and higher-level functioning.
Next time you’re poised to make a decision or wait for a better one to come along, remember our marine friends, and tap into that cognitive ability found in some of earth’s most unique creatures--ourselves included!
Schnell Alexandra K., Boeckle Markus, Rivera Micaela, et al. Cuttlefish exert self-control in a delay of gratification task. Proc. R. Soc. 2021. B.288: 2020316120203161 http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.3161