In this age of seemingly declining human self-control, there’s something comforting in knowing that our ability to exercise restraint is not so much learned as it is — at least to some degree — innate. “From an evolutionary perspective,” the researchers write in the paper, “the present data suggest that this relation has, at minimum, a shared origin within humans and apes.”
Something about willpower was so necessary to the survival of our common ancestor that the genes underlying it persisted in our DNA throughout chimp and human evolution. The link between self-control and intelligence in non-human animals, the researchers explain, “likely reflects something foundational about the role of inhibitory, cognitive processes in general intelligence. How they manifest remains unclear, though they say it’s likely that “self-control and intelligence have a common, but as of yet unidentified, neurobiological foundation within chimpanzees.”
This should come as no surprise, considering how crucial the ability to delay gratification is in the day-to-day lives of chimps and humans alike. While for most of us, delayed gratification often takes the form of resisting snacks to achieve our dream physiques or saving money now for a comfortable retirement later, it really is crucial to survival on the most basic level of existence.
“Imagine a lower ranking animal that is desperate to mate with a receptive partner, but more dominant individuals are around,” Beran says. “Rather than charge ahead at the risk of being punished just to satisfy that urge, waiting until the coast is clear will work better (and, it just might increase the chances of keeping your genes in the pool!).”
Last year, University of California at Santa Barbara researchers, concerned that human children were getting worse at self-control, plotted the results of 30 years of Marshmallow Tests onto a grid, just to find out for sure. The results baffled the researchers, showing that kids not only didn’t get worse but actually improved at the task. One compelling explanation for the unexpected result was that kids are scoring higher on IQ tests than they used to — which, bearing Beran’s new work in mind, suddenly seems a lot less surprising.
“[I] think there is clear selective pressure for being able to compare present and future options, choose between them, and then (perhaps most crucially!),” he says, “being able to stick with the plan.”