Simians in the Shape School: A comparative study of executive attention

Kristin French, Michael J. Beran, Kimberly Andrews Espy, David A. Washburn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Executive functions (EF) have been studied extensively in children and adults. However, EF tasks for young children can be difficult to administer and interpret. Espy (1997, Developmental Neuropsychology, 13, 495–499) designed the Shape School task to measure inhibition and switching in preschool-aged children. Shape School presents cartoon-like characters that children must flexibly name by their color, their shape, or both, depending on cues that indicate the appropriate rule. Shape School has been found to be age sensitive as well as predictive of performance on other EF tasks. We presented a computerized analogue of Shape School to seven rhesus macaques. Monkeys were trained to categorize characters by color or shape, or to inhibit this response, depending on whether the characters had eyes open, eyes closed, or wore hats. Monkeys performed above chance on the inhibition and switching components of the task. Long runs of a single classification rule and long runs of noninhibition trials had no significant impact on performance when the rule changed or inhibition was required. This nonverbal adaptation of Shape School can measure EF in nonhuman animals and could be used in conjunction with other EF tasks to provide a clearer picture of both human and nonhuman executive functions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)281-293
Number of pages13
JournalLearning and Behavior
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2018


  • Comparative cognition
  • Executive attention
  • Rhesus monkeys
  • Shape school

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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