Juan F. Duque
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska, USA
Jeffrey R. Stevens
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska, USA
A task that measures inhibitory control—the ability to inhibit inappropriate or
disadvantageous responses—using a reward placed within a transparent cylinder.
Subjects must inhibit moving directly toward visible reward and instead reach through
one of the cylinder openings at either end.
Duque, J.F. and Stevens, J.R. (2017). Cylinder task. In J. Vonk & T.K. Shackelford
(Eds.), Encyclopedia of animal cognition and behavior. New York: Springer.
A lioness spots a gazelle several meters away on a hill, but a line of tall savannah grass
separates her from her prey. She can proceed directly toward the gazelle, but crashing
through the grass would alert the prey to her presence. Alternatively, she could inhibit the
impulse to run straight toward the prey and detour around the tall grass to a better
location from which to launch her attack. Similarly, a subordinate chimpanzee may
inhibit its desire to mate or forage when in view of a dominant conspecific but seek those
opportunities when out-of-view behind a barrier. Animals face many problems that
require them to inhibit an action in lieu of a different, more goal-consistent behavioral
Inhibitory control is the ability to inhibit a powerful, almost automatic (prepotent)
response. Since prepotent responses often run counter to one’s goals, inhibitory control
is a core feature of executive functioning—the top-down cognitive control processes that
allow individuals to remain on track and achieve desired goals. In the case of the lioness,
she must inhibit the prepotent desire to move directly toward visible prey.
Researchers have used many tasks to measure inhibitory control (Table 1). Detour tasks
require subjects to detour around an obstacle or barrier to reach a desired location. The
cylinder task is a specific form of detour task in which subjects must retrieve a reward,
typically a food item, from within an opaque or transparent cylinder. This task, along
with other detour tasks, requires subjects to first inhibit the prepotent motor response to
move directly toward the visible reward. Instead, they must detour around the barrier
walls to obtain the reward through an available opening.
Other tasks require less motor action by focusing on choice or the withholding of
responses. In reverse contingency and A-not-B tasks, subjects attempt to obtain a reward
by choosing between a set of limited choices, with the prepotent choice not providing the
reward. Similarly, Go/No-Go tasks train subjects to respond to a frequently presented
stimulus, but this prepotent responding must be inhibited in certain situations. In delay of
gratification tasks, individuals must inhibit taking a reward that is available immediately
or after a short delay to obtain a more desirable reward available after a longer delay.
Table 1: Inhibitory Control Tasks
Other Shapes (cube/box)
(Boogert, Anderson, Peters, Searcy, & Nowicki, 2011)
(Boysen & Berntson, 1995)
(Mishkin & Pribram, 1955)
(Mcculloch & Pratt, 1934)
Delay of Gratification
(Grosch & Neuringer, 1981)
(Beran, Savage-Rumbaugh, Pate, & Rumbaugh, 1999)
Exchange (Ramseyer, Pele, Dufour, Chauvin, & Thierry, 2006)
Cylinder Task Procedure
The basic procedure of the cylinder task involves three phases.
Habituation Phase: Subjects habituate to the testing environments. This often
involves exposure to elements of the task that subjects have never, or rarely,
encountered, such as exposure to human experimenters, tracking hand
movements, and the presence of opaque cylinders.
Training Phase: An experimenter baits an opaque cylinder by placing a desired
reward in the center (Figure 1A). To correctly respond, subjects must detour
around the opaque cylinder and reach through one of the openings to obtain the
reward. Touching any part of the opaque wall first counts as an incorrect
response. To proceed to the next phase, subjects often must reach a certain
criterion level of success, typically, 80% correct responses in consecutive trials.
Figure 1. The cylinder apparatus. The Training Phase involves obtaining a reward
from within an opaque cylinder (A). After reaching criterion, the Testing Phase
involves the same procedure, except with a transparent cylinder (B). Subjects must
inhibit the prepotent response to move directly forward and instead detour through
one of the cylinder openings. Used with permission from MacLean et al. (2013).
Testing Phase: This phase is the same as the training phase, except with a
transparent cylinder (Figure 1B). Subjects must inhibit their prepotent response to
reach directly for the desired reward, hitting the transparent wall. Instead, they
must continue around to the ends of the cylinder to acquire the reward.
Researchers often measure performance as the proportion of correct responses or
the number of test trials required until the first correct response.
Cognitive Capacities for Inhibitory Control
Correctly avoiding the barrier and detouring through one of the openings requires several
cognitive capacities. In the training phase, the subject must maintain a memory of the
object after it is hidden inside the opaque cylinder (object permanence). In the testing
phase, the subject must understand the nature of physical barriers. In particular, they
must understand the solidity principle in which one solid object cannot pass through
another solid object. This is particularly relevant to transparent barriers where a subject’s
visual and tactile cues conflict. Lastly, the subject must combine knowledge and solve
the problem at hand to achieve the goal of obtaining the reward. Subjects can see the
reward through the transparent barrier, but they cannot directly access the food; therefore,
they must move around the barrier to reach the reward. To succeed in this task, subjects
must understand the physical state of the world (object permanence and solidity
principle) and exhibit an appropriate behavioral response (detour-reaching).
The simplicity of the cylinder task makes it easily amenable to comparative studies.
Indeed, researchers have tested several dozen species, ranging from pigeons to primates.
Overall, great apes, capuchin monkeys, rhesus macaques, canids, and corvids perform the
best with greater than 70% correct responses (Figure 2). Interestingly, some corvids
match or even surpass the performance of great apes.
Figure 2. Species performance in cylinder task. MacLean et al. (2014) and Kabadayi et
al. (2016) tested a combined 36 species of birds and mammals in the cylinder task. They
report each species’ mean percentage of correct trials during the Testing Phase.
Researchers have examined several evolutionary factors that may account for these
species differences in performance. Phylogenetic comparative methods indicate that
absolute brain volume predicts species differences in performance, along with relative
brain volume and dietary breadth. However, species differences in performance may also
result from how the animals engage in the task. Factors such as a subject’s motivation,
prior experience with opaque/transparent barriers, amount of habituation and training
trials prior to testing, and the degree of experimenter involvement during the task can
influence performance. Therefore, without further investigation into the various
contextual factors that impact performance, species differences should be interpreted with
The cylinder task is one of a suite of inhibitory control tasks. To assess whether
inhibitory control is a unitary construct, researchers have tested the same subjects in
multiple inhibitory control tasks. In general, within-individual performance across
inhibitory control tasks, e.g., A-not-B and the cylinder task, does not correlate. These
findings suggest that inhibitory control is multi-faceted and that various inhibitory control
tasks vary in the precise mechanisms activated.
Inhibitory control is a critical component of executive functioning, ensuring that
individuals maintain appropriate, goal-directed behavior. Detour tasks, such as the
cylinder task, test an individual’s ability to inhibit a prepotent desire to move directly
toward a visible reward. Species vary in their propensity to correctly solve the detour
task, and there may be evolutionary reasons for the species differences. Yet, we currently
do not have a clear understanding of the contextual factors influencing performance on
the detour task. Such data would be useful in elucidating the proximate mechanisms
subjects use during task performance and could clarify why results across multiple
inhibitory control tasks do not always correlate.
A not B problem
Transfer of learning
Go/no go procedure
Beran, M. J., Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Pate, J. L., & Rumbaugh, D. M. (1999). Delay of
gratification in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Developmental Psychobiology,
34(2), 119–127. https://doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1098-
Boogert, N. J., Anderson, R. C., Peters, S., Searcy, W. A., & Nowicki, S. (2011). Song
repertoire size in male song sparrows correlates with detour reaching, but not with
other cognitive measures. Animal Behaviour, 81(6), 1209–1216.
Boysen, S. T., & Berntson, G. G. (1995). Responses to quantity: Perceptual versus
cognitive mechanisms in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). Journal of Experimental
Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 21(1), 82–86.
Diamond, A. (1981). Retrieval of an object from an open box: The development of
visual-tactile control of reaching in the first year of life. Society of Research in
Child Development Abstracts, 3(78).
Grosch, J., & Neuringer, A. (1981). Self-control in pigeons under the Mischel paradigm.
Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 35(1), 3–21.
Kabadayi, C., Taylor, L. A., Bayern, A. M. P. von, & Osvath, M. (2016). Ravens, New
Caledonian crows and jackdaws parallel great apes in motor self-regulation
despite smaller brains. Royal Society Open Science, 3(4), 160104.
Köhler, W. (1925). The Mentality of Apes. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
MacLean, E. L., Hare, B., Nunn, C. L., Addessi, E., Amici, F., Anderson, R. C., … Zhao,
Y. (2014). The evolution of self-control. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, 201323533. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1323533111
MacLean, E. L., Sandel, A. A., Bray, J., Oldenkamp, R. E., Reddy, R. B., & Hare, B.
(2013). Group Size Predicts Social but Not Nonsocial Cognition in Lemurs. PLoS
ONE, 8(6), e66359. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0066359
Mcculloch, T. L., & Pratt, J. G. (1934). A study of the pre-solution period in weight
discrimination by white rats. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 18(2), 271–
Mishkin, M., & Pribram, K. H. (1955). Analysis of the effects of frontal lesions in
monkeys: I. Variations of delayed alternations. Journal of Comparative and
Physiological Psychology, 48(6), 492. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0040318
Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child (Vol. xiii). New York, NY, US:
Basic Books. https://doi.org/10.1037/11168-000
Ramseyer, A., Pele, M., Dufour, V., Chauvin, C., & Thierry, B. (2006). Accepting loss:
the temporal limits of reciprocity in brown capuchin monkeys. Proceedings of the
Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273(1583), 179–184.