Humans Aren't The Only Gamblers In The Animal Kingdom

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Posted on Oct 16th 2010  -  Subject: Humans Aren't The Only Gamblers In The Animal Kingdom

In an article published October 13th in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers determined that pigeons are prone to gambling.  The research found that pigeons given the choice to peck a light that would give them three food pellets each time almost universally preferred a light that would give them a payout of 10 pellets 20 percent of the time.  That meant, averaged out, the pigeons were choosing to get two pellets per peck instead of a sure three.

The reason could be that pigeons are motivated by a surprising change from their expectations, according to study author Thomas Zentall, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky. Similar behaviors have been found in a 2005 study of monkeys. The same phenomenon could explain why human gamblers ignore their losses and focus on their rarer, but more surprising, wins.

"It's a matter of expectation versus outcome," Zentall told LiveScience. "We learn from what is different from our expectations." The researchers felt studying human gambling behavior would be complex, involving social interactions and all dynamics of casinos, so Zentall and his colleagues used pigeons to strip all of that background away.

"The idea that you could set up a situation in which a pigeon or any organism would reliably work against its own best interest is always inherently interesting," said Jeffrey Weatherly, a University of North Dakota independent psychologist who studies human gambling.

Conjecture regarding the findings asserts that animals that take risks in the wild may find themselves better off. Going out of your way for a couple of berries, could lead you to a whole patch. In the controlled environment of a lab or casino, however, the risk-taking backfires.

Zentall finally claimed that his work has shown several parallels between animal and human gambling. For example, pigeons that live in enriched environments make less risky choices, he said, which matches human studies finding that people who are satisfied with their lives also tend to gamble less than those who are dissatisfied. And hungry pigeons, like people with less money, tend to gamble more, he said, despite the obvious downsides of taking risks when you have more to lose.

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