Animals with big brains have more self-control

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

squirrel
The smaller brained animals didn’t remember to go in through the side of the tube when the food was placed in a transparent one.

Self-control is all about limiting our impulsivity, when we act without thinking based on impulses (urges). Dealing with impulsivity is difficult for even strong-willed human beings, so you can imagine how tough it is for animals that follow their natural desires. Well, according to new research, animals with bigger brains have a much easier time fighting off those primal feelings and are more likely to think about their behavior.

To prove this, researchers ran multiple tests which required training animals to carry out a task. Then, they altered the task to provoke a certain impulse. In one of the trials, for example, the researchers put food inside of a dark tube and trained the creatures to access the treat by reaching through the side of the container. When the beasts grew accustomed to the task, the experimenters slyly traded the dark tube with a transparent one. The idea was to provoke the animals to forget all their training and reach straight ahead, bumping into the see-through container. However, those that remembered their training and still reached through the side, were considered to have amazing self-control.

So, how did the different animals fare? The researchers tested 36 different species, ranging from birds to elephants, but the ones that demonstrated the most discipline were… apes! Then, much to everyone’s surprise, meat-eaters like wolves and dogs held their own, while massive creatures like elephants did poorly. It turns out that organisms with larger brains (not relative to their body size) exercised the best control. The researchers are sure that if humans took the test, we would probably share results similar to those of the apes.

Interestingly enough, the part of the brain responsible for self-control  – known as the prefrontal lobe – is one of the last parts of our old noggin’ to finish developing! It doesn’t completely mature until adulthood, which is why experts think teens are more impulsive and engage in risky behavior. Guess they may have a bit more growing to do!

Featured image courtesy of William Warby on Flickr. Image of squirrels courtesy of UC Berkeley.