Monkeys are curious about counterfactual outcomes

Maya Zhe Wang, Benjamin Y. Hayden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Many non-human animals show exploratory behaviors. It remains unclear whether any possess human-like curiosity. We previously proposed three criteria for applying the term curiosity to animal behavior: (1) the subject is willing to sacrifice reward to obtain information, (2) the information provides no immediate instrumental or strategic benefit, and (3) the amount the subject is willing to pay depends systematically on the amount of information available. In previous work on information-seeking in animals, information generally predicts upcoming rewards, and animals’ decisions may therefore be a byproduct of reinforcement processes. Here we get around this potential confound by taking advantage of macaques’ ability to reason counterfactually (that is, about outcomes that could have occurred had the subject chosen differently). Specifically, macaques sacrificed fluid reward to obtain information about counterfactual outcomes. Moreover, their willingness to pay scaled with the information (Shannon entropy) offered by the counterfactual option. These results demonstrate the existence of human-like curiosity in non-human primates according to our criteria, which circumvent several confounds associated with less stringent criteria.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
StatePublished - Aug 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Shannon Cahalan, Marcelina Martynek, and Michelle Ficalora for help with data collection and Becket Ebitz for useful comments on the manuscript. This research was supported by a grant to B.Y.H from Templeton Foundation and NIH R01 DA037229 .


  • Counterfactual
  • Curiosity
  • Entropy
  • Fictive
  • Gambling
  • Hypothetical
  • Risk

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