# Pigeons outperform humans at the Monty Hall Dilemma

Not Exactly Rocket ScienceBy Ed YongApr 2, 2010 7:00 PM

Every tasty reward would reinforce the pigeon’s behaviour, so if it got a meal twice as often when it switched, you’d expect it to soon learn to switch. Hebranson and Schroder demonstrated this with a cunning variant of the Monty Hall Dilemma, where the best strategy would be to stick every time. With these altered probabilities, the pigeons eventually learned the topsy-turvy tactic. It may seem obvious that one should choose the strategy that would yield the most frequent rewards and even the dimmest pigeon should pick up the right tactic after a month of training. But try telling that to students. Hebranson and Schroder presented 13 students with a similar set-up to the pigeons. There were limited instructions and no framing storyline – just three lit keys and a goal to earn as many points as possible. They had to work out what was going on through trial and error and they had 200 goes at guessing the right key over the course of a month. At first, they were equally likely to switch or stay. By the final trial, they were still only switching on two thirds of the trials. They had edged towards the right strategy but they were a long way from the ideal approach of the pigeons. And by the end of the study, they were showing no signs of further improvement.

Why is the Monty Hall Dilemma so perplexing to humans, when mere pigeons seem to cope with it? Hebranson and Schroder think this is a case of our own vaunted intelligence working against us. When faced with a problem like this, we try to think it through, working out the best solution before we do anything. This would be fine, except we’re really quite bad at problems involving conditional probability (such as “if this happens, what are the odds of that happening?”). Despite our best attempts at reasoning, most of us arrive at the wrong answer. Pigeons, on the other hand, rely on experience to work out probabilities. They have a go, and they choose the strategy that seems to be paying off best. They also seem immune to a quirk of ours called “probability matching”. If the odds of winning by switching are two in three, we’ll switch on two out of three occasions, even though that’s a worse strategy than always switching. This is, of course, exactly what the students in Hebranson and Schroder’s experiments did. The pigeons, on the other hand, always switched – no probability matching for them. In short, pigeons succeed because they don’t over-think the problem. It’s telling that among humans, it’s the youngest students who do best at this puzzle. Eighth graders are actually more likely to work out the benefits of switching than older and supposedly wiser university students. Education, it seems, actually worsens our performance at the Monty Hall Dilemma. Reference:

Herbranson, W., & Schroeder, J. (2010). Are birds smarter than mathematicians? Pigeons (Columba livia) perform optimally on a version of the Monty Hall Dilemma. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 124 (1), 1-13 DOI: 10.1037/a0017703

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