Williams College: Research in Monkey Behavior and Consciousness

Williams College is an incredible liberal arts college located in the vibrant Williamstown, Mass. It is the second oldest institution of higher learning in Massachusetts and hosts a number of notable alumni and staff, many known for their accomplishments in the humanities and liberal arts.  

Recently, an associate professor of Psychology Nate Kornell pioneered innovative research in primate behavior.

The research was intended to test “metacognition” in monkeys. Metacognition is the ability to be aware of what you do or don’t know and how confident you are in your beliefs. The paper’s title is “A metacognitive illusion in monkeys.”

To their surprise, monkeys make their decisions much like us–and make accurate approximations about their memories.

In the study, the monkeys were shown images on a screen. Then, these images were shown on a second screen that also had “distractors” (other images alongside it). They were then asked to pick which images they saw earlier and to make a bet (yes, like gambling!) on their level of confidence in their decision. If the monkey bet high but made the wrong choice, they would lose three of their tokens. If it chose correctly, they would win three tokens. Regardless of their choice, a low bet was always rewarded with one token.

Later on, monkeys were more confident when presented with high-contrast images. This was very similar to how humans behaved in similar psychological research. Although previous research has delved into confidence judgments among primates, this is the first study to investigate their decision-making process. It turns out, they are just as vulnerable as we are to cognitive illusions. The research is expected to have significant ramifications in psychological research for young children–but is also a part of the larger effort to find human-like consciousness among animals.

Other research associates included Stephen Ferrigno, a Ph.D. candidate at University of Rochester, and Jessica Cantlon, an associate professor of cognitive sciences at University of Rochester. Kornell did his undergraduate studies at Reed College and received a degree from the renowned Columbia University. He continually tries to understand how people learn and what they do to monitor and make this process more efficient.

If students or parents would like to learn more about Williams College, visit their website for their calendar of events, research activities, and more. It is ranked among the highest achieving liberal arts institutions in the United States. It does not discriminate for lack of funds and has many grants available for their student body.

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