Putting Patience to the Test

Patience can indeed be a virtue, even for animals

04-01-2008 // Roger Di Silvestro

SOCIAL COMMENTATORS from French naturalist Comte de Buffon to Albert Einstein to the rock group Guns and Roses have touted the role of patience in achieving genius or success. Without the ability to wait for long-term rewards, some scientists think, humans would not have been able to achieve such accomplishments as agriculture or flying to the moon. Now, according to information in the journal Science, researchers are putting patience to the test to see which species are best in the waiting game.

In tests that allow animals to choose between behaviors that will give them less food quickly or more food after a delay in time, scientists have found that most tested creatures go for immediate gratification. Offered a choice between two food pellets right now or six pellets a bit later, domestic pigeons would wait no more than 3.5 seconds for the big payoff. Rats did only a bit better.

Tested primates scored relatively high. Marmosets, a type of small monkey, waited up to 14 seconds for a larger prize. Chimpanzees and bonobos were given a choice between one grape now or three later. For bonobos, "later" proved to be no more than 74 seconds. Chimps, though, scored big on patience, fidgeting and head scratching their way through a full 2 minutes of delay for greater gratification.

When chimps and humans were offered varying amounts of M&Ms, raisins or popcorn, about 72 percent of the apes waited 2 minutes. How many humans waited that long? Only 19 percent. One researcher suspects that humans didn't take the test as seriously as the chimps did, because the humans had the option of going to a grocery store after the test if they wanted more.

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