13 October 2010

Research published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B has revealed that when it comes to choosing ways to receive food, pigeons like to gamble.

Experiments conducted by Dr Thomas Zentall and Jessica Stagner at the University of Kentucky show that when given a choice between two strategies for obtaining food, pigeons tend to choose a low probability ‘jackpot’ over a higher probability moderate food prize, even though the second option consistently results in more food over time for the bird.

Surprisingly, the results mimic human gambling behaviour rather than the expected behaviour of wild animals.  Evolutionary theory suggests that animals should rationally choose the outcome which results in more food over time, as this will improve their chances of survival.  Except in extreme cases, human gambling with money does not directly affect survival, which is why as a species we tend to display a blasé attitude to gambling risks.  However, the research clearly shows that pigeons, like humans, prefer ‘gambles’ that sometimes result in a large food reward, over smaller rewards which nonetheless result in more food for the bird due to their more frequent recurrence.

The research raises intriguing possibilities over the mechanisms behind human and animal gambling behaviour.  The authors point out that in nature, going for a low-probability high-payoff outcome may actually often be a good strategy, because it brings the animal closer to a high-value patch of food.  As they suggest, “...what may induce animals (including humans) to pursue a large low probability reward is that in nature (but not typically in the laboratory or casino), such behaviour often increases the probability of the large reward”.