I admit that topic is a bit off my usual Brain Sense beat, but occasionally a piece of research comes along that is just too intriguing to pass by. Such is the case with a new report out of the University of Kentucky, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society (UK). The study's lead author, psychology professor Thomas Zentall, studied some pigeon gamblers and came up with some intriguing insights into human gamblers.

Zentall and collaborator Jessica Stagner set pigeons up in cages and let the birds peck at lights to obtain rewards of food pellets. If the pigeons pecked on the left, they received a green or a red light; after 10 seconds, the red light yielded 10 pellets but the green light yielded nothing. Because the odds were stacked at 20 percent--which is much more generous than your average casino--the pigeons averaged 2 pellets per peck if they pecked on the left.

If they pecked to the right, however, they saw yellow or blue lights, which both yielded 3 pellets of food per trial. Same every time. Sure thing.

So which would you choose: a guaranteed 3 or the remote possibility of a 10 (with the odds stacked against you)? Seems most pigeons behave like human gamblers. They don't go for the sure thing. Most of Zentall's experimental birds consistently chose the left side, apparently motivated by some bird-brained hope that they would receive the 10 pellets, even though 0 was a 4:1 favorite. "It's more efficient not to gamble, and the likelihood of winning is low, but pigeons do it anyway," Zentall says. "And so do people."

"There's a basic behavioral, biological process involved that probably affects many different species, and it doesn't require the excitement of a casino, the misunderstanding of the likelihood of winning, social reinforcement or the publicity of winners," Zentall says. "These factors may help, but that's not it. Look at the pigeons."

Zentall is also looking at the pigeons to try to find out why some pigeons, like some people, eschew gambling. (Yes, a few, wise pigeons peck to the right.) "Most of the time, people who aren't terribly happy with what they're doing choose to gamble because it's exciting to them and other things generally aren't," says Zentall, and pigeons may be no different. Zentall thinks boredom may be an important motivator for gambling. His pigeons are less likely to gamble after spending time in a room playing with toys and other pigeons.

"We can understand the basis for gambling," Zentall says, "but why has this evolved in people and in animals?" The answer may lie in the animal's sense of control. "In nature, probability isn't constant," he said. "Animals are attracted to stimuli that make it easy to predict the availability of food and approaching these stimuli often makes their occurrence more likely. In lab conditions, this isn't the case. . . . In addition, humans remember the wins and not the losses, which has functional value in nature. . . . Animals too, don't remember where they didn't find food, but do remember where they did."

Thus, gambling may have survival value in nature, but not in the casino.

For more information:

Thomas R. Zentall and Jessica Stagner,
Maladaptive choice behaviour by pigeons: an animal analogue and possible mechanism for gambling (sub-optimal human decision-making behaviour).

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