Pigeons want to gamble just like us

Following an experiment set out to study the tendency or not of pigeons to gamble in a similar way to humans spawned some surprising results. Much as humans appreciate the amusement value of purchasing lottery tickets and playing casino games, it was recently revealed that birds have similar tendencies, though of course this cannot be simply put down to the excitement value. This discovery raises a lot of issues not considered up until now.In the monitored experiment, pigeons were taught to peck on one of a choice of two keys of various colours such as blue, yellow, green or red.

Food pellet prize jackpot

Pecking certain keys resulted in variable rewards in the form of food pellets, which were dependent on the colour and display. The so-called “jackpot” prize was 10 pellets that were only released with a vertical line and a specific colour, for example yellow.

Pigeon pay out percentages

Pigeons would receive zero pellets if vertical lines were associated with other colours. If and when they pecked a vertical line key, the pigeon payout percentage was a 20% chance weighed against an 80% chance of winning none at all. Should the bird peck the key indicating a horizontal line, three pellets would be awarded whichever the colour combination.

Pigeons prefer to go for the jackpot mostly

gambling pigeonsDespite having the odds of success stacked against them, six out of eight pigeons in this controlled environment demonstrated the urge to peck the vertical line key that might allow them to walk away with the ultimate prize of ten pellets! Statistically, had these bird brains calculated the probability of total winnings, the safer “three pellet every time” option would have seen them win 50% extra food pellets, rather than going for the adrenaline rush of the elusive “winner takes all” jackpot prize of ten pellets.

Maladaptive decisions

In scientific jargon, such behaviour is named “maladaptive” decision-making. Until now this irrational behaviour was believed to be uniquely human – when applied to gambling that is! Yet the scientists conducting this most interesting of experiments disproved the theory that animals other than humans tend to avoid risk as it may affect their chances of survival, based on the Darwinian theory of natural selection. The results of this study were published in the scientific journal, “Proceedings of the Royal Society B”.

Pigeons and humans think alike

Professors in Psychology, Thomas Zentall and Jessica Stagner, at the University of Kentucky in Lexington concluded, “The results of these experiments suggest that pigeons show a tendency to make maladaptive decisions similar to those of humans. That is, pigeons prefer a signal for a low probability, high payoff alternative over a signal for a certain low payoff alternative that on average provides 50% more reinforcement.”
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