Maladaptive choice behaviour by pigeons: an animal analogue and possible mechanism for gambling (sub-optimal human decision-making behaviour)

Thomas R. Zentall, Jessica Stagner

Abstract

Consistent with human gambling behaviour but contrary to optimal foraging theory, pigeons showed maladaptive choice behaviour in experiment 1 by choosing an alternative that provided on average two food pellets over an alternative that provided a certain three food pellets. On 20 per cent of the trials, choice of the two-pellet alternative resulted in a stimulus that always predicted ten food pellets; on the remaining 80 per cent of the trials, the two-pellet alternative resulted in a different stimulus that always predicted zero food pellets. Choice of the three-pellet alternative always resulted in three food pellets. This choice behaviour mimics human monetary gambling in which the infrequent occurrence of a stimulus signalling the winning event (10 pellets) is overemphasized and the more frequent occurrence of a stimulus signalling the losing event (zero pellets) is underemphasized, compared with the certain outcome associated with not gambling (the signal for three pellets). In experiment 2, choice of the two-pellet alternative resulted in ten pellets with a probability of 20 per cent following presentation of either stimulus. Choice of the three-pellet alternative continued to result in three food pellets. In this case, the pigeons reliably chose the alternative that provided a certain three pellets over the alternative that provided an average of two pellets. Thus, in experiment 1, the pigeons were responding to obtain the discriminative stimuli signalling reinforcement and the absence of reinforcement, rather than to obtain the variability in reinforcement.

  • Received July 27, 2010.
  • Accepted September 20, 2010.
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