Why Humans Should Think Like Pigeons: A Psychological Experiment

Shutterstock / Furtseff
Shutterstock / Furtseff

Someone recently pointed out to me an experiment that was done with pigeons and humans. I won’t go into the details here. But the experiment involved playing a game. If you are a pigeon, you are rewarded with birdseed if you win the game. If you are a human, you are rewarded with points. In playing the game, you are offered a choice of two strategies. One of the strategies is “right”; the other is “wrong.” But it is not immediately obvious which is which, because the right strategy does not always work. It is right because it works more often then the wrong strategy (specifically, twice as often). 
 
Pigeons eventually learn the right strategy. They do this by trial and error and by observing that one strategy works more often than the other. Humans, however, do not learn. Rather than simply observe what works and doesn’t work, they try to figure it out. Once they believe they have figured it out, they stop experimenting. Since the winning strategy, for some, is counter-intuitive, humans, more often than not, get stuck following the wrong strategy. 
 
It seems to be a very human trait to reach a conclusion then to cling to that conclusion, making no attempt to verify it with actual data (or even ignoring actual data if it is brought to your attention). This is especially true in the political arena. I’m sure we could all point to instances where our political opponents are guilty of this practice. (We could, if we tried, point to instance where we are guilty of this practice as well. But it is much easier to notice in our opponents.)
 
This is such a human trait, that it caused me to wonder if, at some time in the past, it might have provided an evolutionary advantage. After pondering this awhile, I have decided that it probably did. Often groups are united by belief in something that simply isn’t true. If membership in that group confers some advantage despite its misconception (as it well might in a hostile environment), then the ability to ignore facts and cling to that uniting belief may do more good than harm. I suspect such an ability was critical at an early point in human history.
 
One hopes, however, that we will someday outgrow this tendency. Membership in a small, self-serving group is no longer the good thing it might have been in the distant past. Perhaps, someday, we will learn to think like pigeons.
 
 
The details of the experiment, if you are interested, can be found here. TC mark

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