Pigeons Gamble, Just Like Us.

The birds’ risky behavior can teach us about our own bad choices.

Americans love to gamble—86 percent of us have gambled at least once in our lives—and it turns out we’re not alone. A new study by the University of Kentucky reveals that pigeons will likewise try their luck, if given the chance.

The study setup went like this: A group of captive pigeons were presented with a choice between two white lights. If the bird pecked one white light, it received three food pellets a hundred percent of the time. The other light shelled out 10 food pellets 20 percent of the time, meaning that over time the pigeon’s haul would average two pellets per turn.

The researchers, led by psychology professor Thomas Zentall, expected to find that pigeons would most often choose the consistent three-pellet score. After all, in the face of evolutionary pressures, it was the guaranteed outcome—food on the table. Surprisingly, the study revealed that pigeons most often ventured to take a risk, wagering on the 10-pellet payday.

So how does this translate to human actions? “As a psychologist I’m interested in behavior that seems irrational,” says Zentall. “Studying pigeons lets us establish an evolutionary basis for suboptimal behavior.”

For one, the birds with the most limited access to food were more likely to go for the riskier choice. A similar paradox appears in humans; the lower a person’s socio-economic status, the more likely he or she will bet the farm.

Similarly, birds that were given time to socialize with their peers stopped going for broke. That discovery mirrored the previous finding that compulsive human gamblers tend to show improved impulse control when exposed to enriching social environments—with positive support, they are less likely to slip into bad habits.

Overall, the study suggests that since animals overplay their hand, too, evolution may have stacked the deck against problem gamblers. Zentall hopes the study can help shed light on a possible treatment for gambling addiction. And that is a bet worth making.


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