Waiting by mistake: Symbolic representation of rewards modulates intertemporal choice in capuchin monkeys, preschool children and adult humans

In the Delay choice task subjects choose between a smaller immediate option and a larger delayed option. This paradigm, also known as intertemporal choice task, is frequently used to assess delay tolerance, interpreting a preference for the larger delayed option as willingness to wait. However, in the Delay choice task subjects face a dilemma between two preferred responses: "go for more" (i.e., selecting the larger, but delayed, option) vs. "go for sooner" (i.e., selecting the immediate, but smaller, option). When the options consist of visible food amounts, at least some of the choices of the larger delayed option might be due to a failure to inhibit a prepotent response towards the larger option rather than to a sustained delay tolerance. To disentangle this issue, we tested 10 capuchin monkeys, 101 preschool children, and 88 adult humans in a Delay choice task with food, low-symbolic tokens (objects that can be exchanged with food and have a one-to-one correspondence with food items), and high-symbolic tokens (objects that can be exchanged with food and have a one-to-many correspondence with food items). This allows evaluating how different methods of representing rewards modulate the relative contribution of the "go for more" and "go for sooner" responses. Consistently with the idea that choices for the delayed option are sometimes due to a failure at inhibiting the prepotent response for the larger quantity, we expected high-symbolic tokens to decrease the salience of the larger option, thus reducing "go for more" responses. In fact, previous findings have shown that inhibiting prepotent responses for quantity is easier when the problem is framed in a symbolic context. Overall, opting for the larger delayed option in the visible-food version of the Delay choice task seems to partially result from an impulsive preference for quantity, rather than from a sustained delay tolerance. In capuchins and children high-symbolic stimuli decreased the individual's preference for the larger reward by distancing from its appetitive features. Conversely, the sophisticated symbolic skills of adult humans prevented the distancing effect of high-symbolic stimuli in this population, although this result may be due to methodological differences between adult humans and the other two populations under study. Our data extend the knowledge concerning the influence of symbols on both human and non-human primate behavior and add a new element to the interpretation of the Delay choice task. Since high-symbolic stimuli decrease the individual's preference for the larger reward by eliminating those choices due to prepotent responses towards the larger quantity, they allow to better discriminate responses based on genuine delay aversion. Thus, these findings invite greater caution in interpreting the results obtained with the visible-food version of the Delay choice task, which may overestimate delay tolerance. (C) 2013 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

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Addessi, Elsa
Bellagamba, Francesca
Delfino, Alexia
De Petrillo, Francesca
Focaroli, Valentina
Macchitella, Luigi
Maggiorelli, Valentina
Pace, Beatrice
Pecora, Giulia
Rossi, Sabrina
Sbaffi, Agnese
Tasselli, Maria Isabella
Paglieri, Fabio
Elsevier, Amsterdam , Paesi Bassi
Cognition (The Hague) 130 (2014): 428–441. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2013.11.019
info:cnr-pdr/source/autori:Addessi, Elsa; Bellagamba, Francesca; Delfino, Alexia; De Petrillo, Francesca; Focaroli, Valentina; Macchitella, Luigi; Maggiorelli, Valentina; Pace, Beatrice; Pecora, Giulia; Rossi, Sabrina; Sbaffi, Agnese; Tasselli, Maria Isab
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