Ranking cognitive flexibility in a group setting of rhesus monkeys with a set-shifting procedure

Tatiana A. Shnitko, Daicia C. Allen, Steven W. Gonzales, Nicole A.R. Walter, Kathleen A. Grant

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Attentional set-shifting ability is an executive function underling cognitive flexibility in humans and animals. In humans, this function is typically observed during a single experimental session where dimensions of playing cards are used to measure flexibility in the face of changing rules for reinforcement (i.e., the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST)). In laboratory animals, particularly non-human primates, variants of the WCST involve extensive training and testing on a series of dimensional discriminations, usually in social isolation. In the present study, a novel experimental approach was used to assess attentional set-shifting simultaneously in 12 rhesus monkeys. Specifically, monkeys living in individual cages but in the same room were trained at the same time each day in a set-shifting task in the same housing environment. As opposed to the previous studies, each daily session began with a simple single-dimension discrimination regardless of the animal’s performance on the previous session. A total of eight increasingly difficult, discriminations (sets) were possible in each daily 45 min session. Correct responses were reinforced under a second-order schedule of flavored food pellet delivery, and criteria for completing a set was 12 correct trials out of a running total of 15 trials. Monkeys progressed through the sets at their own pace and abilities. The results demonstrate that all 12 monkeys acquired the simple discrimination (the first set), but individual differences in the ability to progress through all eight sets were apparent. A performance index (PI) that encompassed progression through the sets, errors and session duration was calculated and used to rank each monkey’s performance in relation to each other. Overall, this version of a set-shifting task results in an efficient assessment of reliable differences in cognitive flexibility in a group of monkeys.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number55
JournalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
StatePublished - Mar 23 2017


  • Attentional set-shifting
  • Cognitive flexibility
  • Extradimensional discrimination
  • Intradimensional discrimination
  • Non-human primates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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