Are you smarter than a pigeon?

My son’s ELP (extended learning program) homework this evening was about solving problems where the answer is counterintuitive. One of the examples is the “Monty Hall problem.” You’re a contestant on a game show, and you choose one of three closed doors, hoping you picked the one with the prize. The game show host then opens one of the other two doors to show that it does not have the prize, and then gives you the chance to change your choice to the third, still unopened door. Do you stick with your first choice or switch?

Even though I have seen this question before, it was years ago, and I found myself reluctant to accept the answer that it is always to your advantage to switch. I read through several online discussions of the problem before it more or less made sense to me. The most interesting explanation I found is in this article, which shows that pigeons do far better than humans at solving this sort of problem.

The reason for that, the article explains, is that humans approach the problem by trying to use rules of thumb they have learned. And none of those rules of thumb fit this problem. Pigeons, on the other hand, observe what works each time, and quickly discover that switching from their initial choice works more often.


2 Responses to Are you smarter than a pigeon?

  1. modestypress says:

    I will be rude here and promote my own blog:

    Where I live (Whidbey Island, near the state of Washington) we are having a wind storm. Our electrical power went out this morning, though it just came back on about an hour ago. I am wondering if one of these days the power will go out (which it does from time to time) and then not come back on (which it always has so far thought sometimes it takes a day or two) because civilization is collapsing (as it seems to be in places such as Libya at the moment, not to mention the island ofMozambique which people seldom mention because who cares about them)?

    The topic of my blog is: Will civilization last until the end of this century: 2100? If civilization collapses, then game show prizes requiring electrical power will not be of much use. On the other hand, a goat might be very useful indeed. When I was a child, my parents bought a goat and I milked her before and after junior high school. So the answer to the question might be even less intuitive than your post suggests.

    I don’t own a goat now (though others on Whidbey Island do own goats), but I do own chickens. This morning I fixed myself scrambled eggs for breakfast freshly laid by our chickens and full of valuable omega3 because our chickens are free range and eat a varied and healthful diet. They especially love earthworms and oats. Probably you don’t need to eat earthworms (I don’t), but oatmeal is very good for you and I often have it for breakfast.

    By the way, how is your weight doing?

  2. Margaret says:

    Intriguing. We humans seem to value cars (because they enable to move around fast, which is something we like to do) more than we do pigeons (who are sometimes better at learning from experience than we are) and goats (who are also better than we are at producing milk and eating grass).

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