Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Hungry Pigeons Make Suboptimal Choices, Less Hungry Pigeons Do Not

Academic journal article Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

Hungry Pigeons Make Suboptimal Choices, Less Hungry Pigeons Do Not

Article excerpt

Published online: 26 June 2012

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2012

Abstract Hungry animals will often choose suboptimally by being attracted to reliable signals for food that occur infrequently (they gamble) over less reliable signals for food that occur more often. That is, pigeons prefer an option that 50 % of the time provides them with a reliable signal for the appearance of food but 50 % of the time provides them with a reliable signal for the absence of food (overall 50 % reinforcement) over an alternative that always provides them with a signal for the appearance of food 75 % of the time (overall 75 % reinforcement). The pigeons appear to choose impulsively for the possibility of obtaining the reliable signal for reinforcement. There is evidence that greater hunger is associated with greater impulsivity. We tested the hypothesis that if the pigeons were less hungry, they would be less impulsive and, thus, would choose more optimally (i.e., on the basis of the overall probability of reinforcement). We found that hungry pigeons choose the 50 % reinforcement alternative suboptimally but less hungry pigeons prefer the more optimal 75 % reinforcement. Paradoxically, pigeons that needed the food more received less of it. These findings have implications for how level of motivation may also affect human suboptimal choice (e.g., purchase of lottery tickets and playing slot machines).

Keywords Gambling * Choice behavior * Suboptimal choice * Signaled reinforcement * Pigeons

Maladaptive gambling by humans can be defined as making a decision to choose a low-probability but high-payoffalternative over a high-probability, low-payoffalternative, such that the net expected return is less than what one has wagered. In choosing the first alternative, odds are against the gambler (ratio of negative outcomes compared with positive outcomes) such that, in the long term, this decision will result in losing more than winning. Examples of this include when humans purchase a lottery ticket or gamble at a casino in which, on average, engaging in repeated gambles results in a loss of money. Research that we have conducted with pigeons appears to be analogous to human gambling behavior of this kind.

Gipson, Alessandri, Miller, and Zentall (2009) found that pigeons preferred a discriminative stimulus alternative when choice of that alternative resulted in a substantial loss of reinforcement. The choice was between 50 % reinforcement with discriminative stimuli and 75 % reinforcement with nondiscriminative stimuli. A reliable suboptimal preference for the 50 % reinforcement alternative was found, in spite of the fact that the pigeons could have received 50 % more food by choosing the nondiscriminative-stimulus alternative. More recently, Stagner and Zentall (2010) gave pigeons a choice between 20 % reinforcement with discriminative stimuli and 50 % reinforcement with nondiscriminative stimuli and found that pigeons preferred the discriminativestimulus alternative in spite of the fact that they could have earned 2.5 times as much food by choosing the 50 % reinforcement alternative.

In the Gipson et al. (2009) and Stagner and Zentall (2010) experiments, the appearance of the discriminative stimuli indicated whether the pigeons would be fed or not, but choice of the nondiscriminative stimuli did not clarify whether food would follow. Thus, it may be that the preference for the low probability of reinforcement alternative actually resulted from avoidance of the ambiguous nondiscriminative alternative. To test this hypothesis, Zentall and Stagner (2011) manipulated the magnitude of reinforcement rather than the percentage of reinforcement. For the lower probability of reinforcement alternative with discriminative stimuli, on 20 % of the trials, a stimulus was presented that always predicted 10 pellets of food, and on the remaining trials, a stimulus was presented that always predicted the absence of food. Thus, the mean reinforcement per trial associated with this alternative was 2 pellets of food. …

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