Cuttlefish show self-control to wait for better rewards


Cuttlefish have to ability to exercise self-control which is used to attain a better reward than if they have sought immediate gratification.

There is a test which finds out if kids are going to live fruitful lives and perhaps be leaders. They are presented with two choices: immediate gratification or a better reward which takes longer to obtain. The latter requires self-discipline and thought. It is called the marshmallow test. Psychologists say that they can predict if a six-year-old will go on to live a good life. Well, cuttlefish pass the test.


Cuttlefish. Deemed to be in the public domain.

Rather than testing them with marshmallows they used two types of shrimp: grass shrimp which they really like and king prawn which they like less. With some training they demonstrated an ability to overcome the immediate gratification they’d obtain by eating the king prawn and waited for the better food, the grass shrimp.

They understood that patience would reward them with one of their favourite foods. Dr Alexandra Schell of Cambridge University said: “We used an adapted version of the Stanford marshmallow test, where children were given a choice of taking an immediate reward, one marshmallow, or waiting to earn two marshmallows. Cuttlefish in the study were all able to wait for the better reward.”

They found that the cuttlefish varied in intelligence and those that passed the test were brighter. They learned faster. This association between intelligence and the test results had only been seen in humans and chimpanzees before.

In a second experiment the cuttlefish were tested on their ability to make an association with a visual cue and a reward. Dr Schell remarked: “The cuttlefish that were quickest at learning both associations were better at exerting self-control.”

Cuttlefish are cephalopods. The tests highlights their intelligence. Octopuses are also cephalopods. They have been known for their intelligence since the 3rd century.

It appears that cuttlefish can demonstrate self-control. Where did this ability come from? Well it must be part of their intelligence; rational thought. The experts think it also might be linked to tool making. Making tools to achieve something requires the ability to wait for the result as the tool has to be built first. But cuttlefish don’t make tools.

Schell believes this ability may come from their lack of camouflage when foraging for food. Their camouflage falls away when they search for food. Perhaps they have learned to wait for the optimum moment to forage to minimise the risk of attack from a predator.

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