Cuttlefish Can Pass Test Designed to Measure Self-Control in Young Children, Study Finds

When it comes to food, cuttlefish know how to exercise self-restraint in order to get what they want.

Researchers have found that cuttlefish, a type of marine mollusk, can pass up the opportunity to eat a not-so-favorite food right away if they know something better can be theirs if they are patient. 

A new study published this month outlined how cuttlefish can pass the "marshmallow test," an experiment designed to test at what age young children are capable of exercising self-control.

In the study, a version of which was popularized in the viral TikTok patience snack challenge, children are left in the same room as a marshmallow, and told that if they can wait for 15 minutes, they will be allowed to eat the treat — and have another. 

For their test, researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory took six common cuttlefish and put them in a tank that also housed two chambers with different snacks in them.

One chamber held live grass shrimp, a favorite snack, while the other housed a less-desirable option.

Different symbols, which the cuttlefish had been trained to recognize, were put on both chambers. One indicated that the door would open immediately, while the other symbol meant that the door would only open on a delay.

"Cuttlefish in the present study were all able to wait for the better reward and tolerated delays for up to 50-130 seconds, which is comparable to what we see in large-brained vertebrates such as chimpanzees, crows and parrots," lead author Alexandra Schnell of University of Cambridge said in a press release about the study. 

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Then, after cuttlefish were able to make the correct association, the symbols were reversed. 

"The cuttlefish that were quickest at learning both of those associations were better at exerting self-control," Schnell added.

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Although researchers still don't know why cuttlefish are capable of self-control, the trait could have something to do with how they've evolved to forage for food.  

"Cuttlefish spend most of their time camouflaging, sitting and waiting, punctuated by brief periods of foraging," Schnell explained. "They break camouflage when they forage, so they are exposed to every predator in the ocean that wants to eat them. We speculate that delayed gratification may have evolved as a byproduct of this, so the cuttlefish can optimize foraging by waiting to choose better quality food."

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