Quantity–quality trade-off in the acquisition of token preference by capuchin monkeys (Sapajus spp.)

E. Quintiero, Serena Gastaldi, Francesca De Petrillo, Elsa Addessi, and Sacha Bourgeois-Gironde


Money represents a cornerstone of human modern economies and how money emerged as a medium of exchange is a crucial question for social sciences. Although non-human primates have not developed monetary systems, they can estimate, combine and exchange tokens. Here, we evaluated quantity–quality trade-offs in token choices in tufted capuchin monkeys as a first step in the investigation of the generalizability of tokens as reinforcers, which is a potentially relevant factor underlying the emergence of money in humans. We measured capuchins' exchange preferences when they were repeatedly provided with 10 units of three token types yielding food combinations varying in quantity and quality. Overall, capuchins maximized their quantitative payoff, preferring tokens associated with a higher food amount, rather than showing violations of rationality. However, some individuals did not maximize their qualitative payoff, possibly because of conditional valuation effects or owing to the choice overload phenomenon, according to which too many options reduce the accuracy of choice. Our study supports the importance of comparative research to finely analyse the multiple components shaping the economic behaviours of other species, possibly to achieve a more comprehensive, evolutionary- and ecologically based understanding of human economic behaviour.

Published in

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, vol. 376, n. 1819, March 2021