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Anim Behav. 1999 Mar;57(3):565-582.

Problem solving and functional design features: experiments on cotton-top tamarins, Saguinus oedipus oedipus.

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Departments of Psychology, Harvard University


In any problem-solving situation, there are features associated with the problem that are relevant from a functional perspective and other features that are irrelevant. To determine whether animals are sensitive to the distinction between functionally relevant and irrelvant features of a problem, we conducted two main experiments with a New World monkey, the cotton-top tamarin. In the first condition of both experiments, subjects were required to pull a piece of cloth to gain access to a piece of food. The first experiment involved choosing between food that was on the cloth and food that was off the cloth. The second experiment involved choosing between food that was on a connected piece of cloth and food that was on two pieces of cloth separated by a horizontal gap. Having learned to solve either of these two problems, we conducted a series of probe conditions to determine whether the tamarins would generalize to changes in the shape, size, colour, and texture of the cloth and food, the position of the food relative to the cloth, and the type of connection between two pieces of cloth. For most of the probe conditions, the tamarins readily generalized, showing no decrement in performance, even on the first trial. For other conditions, involving apparently more subtle discrimination (e.g. a narrow vertical gap between the two pieces of cloth), explicit training was required. These results indicate that tamarins solve means-end relationships, and that their ability depends on a discrimination between properties that are functionally relevant as opposed to irrelevant. Copyright 1999 The Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour.

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