Are animals as irrational as humans?

November 22, 2004

Animals in the wild are constantly confronted with decisions where to nest, who to mate, where the best forage is. Mainstream models of choice in both economics and biology predict that preferences will be rational, or consistent across contexts, as a result of being motivated by self interest or, in the case of animals, reproductive success. Yet many studies report that when making decisions people often take shortcuts, using cognitive heuristics that may lead to economically irrational decisions, with similar claims now showing up in animal behavior studies.

In a new study, Cynthia Schuck-Paim, Lorena Pompilio, and Alex Kacelnik question whether irrational decisions have been correctly demonstrated in animals. The authors suggest that observed "breaches of rationality" may stem from differences in the physiological state of animals "unwittingly imposed" by experimental design rather than from real irrational decisions.

To test this, the researchers trained European starlings to choose between two rich food sources (called focal options) and one of two poorer "decoys" in different contexts. Schuck-Paim and collaborators show that introducing the decoys resulted in an "irrational" preference only when the decoys were allowed to have an effect on food intake, suggesting that the choice resulted from the birds' energetic state rather than from cognitive mechanisms of choice similar to those used to explain irrationality in human subjects.

Altogether, Schuck-Paim and co-authors argue, these results warn that studies appropriating ideas from other disciplines can introduce confounding effects. Researchers would do well to carefully examine the underlying causes of observed animal behaviors when testing ideas formulated in a nonbiological framework.
Citation: Schuck-Paim C, Pompilio L, Kacelnik A (2004) State-Dependent Decisions Cause Apparent Violations of Rationality in Animal Choice. PLoS Biol 2 (12): e402.

CONTACT: Alex Kacelnik
University of Oxford
South Parks Road
Oxford, UK OX13PS
44-1865-271-120 (fax)


All works published in PLoS Biology are open access. Everything is immediately available without cost to anyone, anywhere--to read, download, redistribute, include in databases, and otherwise use--subject only to the condition that the original authorship is properly attributed. Copyright is retained by the authors. The Public Library of Science uses the Creative Commons Attribution License.


Related Decisions Articles from Brightsurf:

Consumers value difficult decisions over easy choices
In a paper co-authored by Gaurav Jain, an assistant professor of marketing in the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer, researchers found that disfluency, or the difficulty for an individual to process a message, increases people's attitudes toward that message after a time delay.

Evolutionary theory of economic decisions
When survival over generations is the end game, researchers say it makes sense to undervalue long shots that could be profitable and overestimate the likelihood of rare bad outcomes.

Decisions made for incapacitated patients often not what families want
Researchers from Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University report in a study published in JAMA Network Open that nearly half of the time medical treatments and orders received for incapacitated patients were not compatible with goals of care requested by their surrogate decision makers.

Which COVID-19 models should we use to make policy decisions?
A new process to harness multiple disease models for outbreak management has been developed by an international team of researchers.

For complex decisions, narrow them down to two
When choosing between multiple alternatives, people usually focus their attention on the two most promising options.

Fungal decisions can affect climate
Research shows fungi may slow climate change by storing more carbon.

How decisions unfold in a zebrafish brain
Researchers were able to track the activity of each neuron in the entire brain of zebrafish larvae and reconstruct the unfolding of neuronal events as the animals repeatedly made 'left or right' choices in a behavioral experiment.

Best of the best: Who makes the most accurate decisions in expert groups?
New method predicts accuracy on the basis of similarity.

How do brains remember decisions?
Mammal brains -- including those of humans -- store and recall impressive amounts of information based on our good and bad decisions and interactions in an ever-changing world.

How we make complex decisions
MIT neuroscientists have identified a brain circuit that helps break complex decisions down into smaller pieces.

Read More: Decisions News and Decisions Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to