Cuttlefish are smarter than we may have thought

One of the experiments that grabbed the public’s imagination was one where young children who were able to delay gratification in the form of getting a treat seemed to have more positive life outcomes. Now there is a study using cuttlefish that follows the same model and finds that they too will forego an immediate reward in order to get a better reward later. One of the researchers Alex Schnell was interviewed about the work.

Seeing as cuttlefish can remember past events, I started wondering whether they can plan for the future. That is a very sophisticated type of intelligence. But before asking that specific question, my colleagues and I first needed to ask whether cuttlefish have the capacity to exert self-control because self-control is a really important prerequisite for future planning. In order to plan for the future and plan for better outcomes in the future, individuals needed to resist temptation in the present moment. 

The start of the study began with a food preference test. . . . We figured out what their first preference was and what their second preference was. Then we conducted the self-control experiment, which is very much based on the famous psychology experiment conducted in children in the 1970.

During the test phase, we presented them with both chambers at the same time and they were given the choice to choose one over the other. They could either have the immediate reward, which was the second preference or they could hold out for their preferred food that was delayed. We started the delays at ten seconds and increased that delay by increments of ten seconds. I should also mention that if they chose their immediate reward, the preferred reward was taken away, so they quickly learned that they could only choose one out of the two options. 

They would wait one hundred percent of the time at ten seconds, twenty seconds, thirty seconds. As I increased the delay beyond thirty seconds, you could see that some of the individuals were struggling to resist the temptation of that second preferred food, and you’d see them sometimes wait for half the amount of time and then cave. My best subject waited for one hundred thirty seconds; my worst subject, his maximum wait time was fifty seconds. 

You see a range, and that’s pretty common amongst other animals as well. . . . There is evidence of self-control in a range of diverse animals, but tolerance to temptation varies. For instance, animals like rats, chickens, and pigeons, they find it really difficult to resist temptation and they might only wait several seconds . . . whereas animals like chimpanzees, crows, and parrots show more advanced self-control and they can wait up to several minutes for food that they prefer. The cuttlefish in our study showed comparable levels to the latter group, and that was particularly surprising. 

You can read the paper here.

Only six cuttlefish were involved in the experiment, which is a bit of a damper on the reliability of the results. But still it was interesting.


  1. says

    Maybe that’s not a good measure of intelligence. It seems to me that if you can’t define what you are measuring all you can do is say “this result is specific to this test.”

    Deferred gratification may be a bad strategy, actually. It’s only ‘smart’ in a highly constructed situation.

  2. Mano Singham says


    Delayed gratification may or may not be a good survival strategy for some species like cuttlefish and it may not signify intelligence. But the point is that they are engaging in some kind of planning and reward optimization

  3. publicola says

    I’m wondering if the immediate reward was removed once the preferred was chosen. If not, how can they claim that the animal learned it could only choose one option? Or maybe I’m misunderstanding something?

  4. Mano Singham says


    The article doesn’t say but the paper does. According to the paper, “Cuttlefish were trained to learn that once they approached a chamber, the prey in the alternative chamber was removed immediately.”

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