Can Pigeons Learn Faster the Humans?

Would you believe that the answer is “yes.” And would you further believe that the learning involves conditional probabilities? The problem is the famed “Monty Hall Dilemma” from the old TV show Let’s Make a Deal. On one segment of the show the contestant was asked to make a choice regarding three doors. There was a valuable prize behind one door and trash prizes behind the other two doors. After the contestant chose one of the doors, Monty Hall would open one of the other two doors, which would have a trash prize behind it. Monty then asks the contestant whether she wants to switch her choice to the other remaining door. Most people, including some prominent statisticians, saw no point to switching the choice. However, the contestant would increase her chances of winning something valuable to 67% from 33% by switching. This result is non-intuitive. The simple explanation is that the sample space changed with the opening of one of the doors. Very detailed explanations can be fond on the Wikipedia or you can play the game itself at

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/08/science/08monty.html

and prove that the answer is correct. Be sure to play the game enough times to acquire a large enough sample. Concluding on the basis of your first few tries could lead to an erroneous conclusion.

But our question is whether pigeons could do better the humans. Probably not on Let’s Make a Deal, as the typical pigeon just as the typical human is unlikely to know the problem or to be especially knowledgeable about conditional probabilities. But how would humans and pigeons compare after playing a game like the simulation provided above?

An experiment1 addressed this question. Here’s how this experiment was run for the pigeons. Prior to each trial the prize, a grain pellet, was randomly assigned to each of three keys. The keys were illuminated and the pigeon pecked a key locking in the choice. Following a brief delay, the two remaining keys were again illuminated again and a second peck produced a prize, the grain, or a time-out. Pigeons completed up to 100 trials per day over 30 days. Human participants completed 200 trials using a computer display and were presented with visual feedback. Pigeons began with a tendency to stay, but eventually settled on a strategy to switch on virtually all trials. Human participants quickly developed a tendency to switch on about two-thirds of the trials. That is, they tried to probability match rather than moving to the optimal strategy of always switching. If you do not believe that this is the optimal strategy, then go back to the simulation and test your hypothesis, remembering to run a large number of trials.

So how could this be? Could pigeons be smarter than humans (see the Healthymemory Blog post, “Consciousness in Both Human and Non-Human Animals”)? Or could it be that humans are being too smart for their own good in this case? Remember the distinction between System 1 and System 2 Processes (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Two System View of Cognition”). System 1 consists of well learned processes that run virtually automatically. System 2 is close to our conscious processing and is what we commonly experienced as thinking. It is possible that we over think the problem to our disadvantage. It would have been interesting to continue humans in the experiment to see when, if ever, they learned the optimal strategy of not switching. The pigeons, in spite of their conscious capacity, might have learned the optimal strategy via very basic learning processes. Be assured this is all conjecture, done in fun. But the empirical results are real.

1Hebranson, W.T. (2012). Pigeons, Humans and the Monty Hall Dilemma. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2012 21:297 DOI: 10.1177/0963721412453585.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 Responses to “Can Pigeons Learn Faster the Humans?”

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