Making good decisions

lab mouse

More intelligent than you?

It’s often been argued that humans are separated from other animals by their ability to use reason. But a brilliant event at London Zoo earlier this month showed that in fact we might be on the wrong side of this divide (at least some of the time).

The event, organised by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), was about ‘Making good decisions: how humans and other animals deal with an uncertain world’. The experts’ conclusions gave some unexpected insights into human and animal intelligence – they’re not as different as many would like to believe…

Gains and losses

All animals (humans included) need to make decisions to survive – consciously or unconsciously. Even an amoeba has to somehow decide where to go on its tiny pseudo-feet. And for bigger animals the importance of making the right decision is more obvious – a choice of whether to run or hide from a predator can have life-or-death consequences.

But how do animals make these decisions? This was the question posed by the first speaker, Alex Kacelnik, from the University of Oxford. Professor Kacelnik has done some amazing work with New Caledonian crows (an example of excellent animal tool-makers), and is also an expert in ‘risky choices’.

A risky choice isn’t just something like getting too drunk at a party – here ‘risk’ means anything about your environment that you can’t predict. For example, you could eat that Snickers bar now, but what if you need it later? Your train might be delayed, and if it is you’ll be desperate for a chocolate fix at about 7pm. So, to eat or not to eat is a risky choice because you can’t be sure what the future holds.

Research so far has shown that humans and many animals (such as birds and mammals) show similarities in how they make risky choices. Essentially, we’d rather avoid risks and go for the more certain option if we’re thinking about a possible gain (a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush). But if we’re looking at a possible loss we’re happier to take the risky option – perhaps in the hope that we can avoid losing out. This pattern of decision-making often works well – but humans have other habits that aren’t always so effective, as the next speaker explained.

The Concorde fallacy

Peter Ayton, Professor of Psychology from City University in London, spoke about the so-called ‘Concorde fallacy‘. The concept is named after the famous plane – it was clear fairly early on in Concorde’s development that the idea of a super-fast plane with expensive tickets and not many seats was never going to turn a profit. But despite this, the plane did make it off the ground. Why? Because the funders felt that if the project was scrapped it would be a waste of all the money spent so far.

But as Professor Ayton pointed out, logically that money had already been lost and couldn’t be recovered. So there was no point in sinking more funds into the doomed enterprise. This might seem obvious, but in fact humans are amazingly prone to the Concorde fallacy (also known as the ‘sunk cost effect’). Imagine you’ve bought a train ticket in advance to go away for the weekend, paying £50. But then a friend offers you a lift for free. The car will be much more convenient, so which do you pick? Research has shown that most people given a scenario like this will choose the ‘worse’ and more expensive option – not wanting to waste the money they’ve already spent.

It seems this is one example of how our decision-making can come unstuck. We just can’t let go of the idea of wasting our sunk costs, even though it’s not logical. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we aren’t rational all the time, but what is interesting is that so far no-one has found a definite example of a non-human animal falling prey to the Concorde fallacy. This doesn’t say much for the human race’s ‘cognitive sophistication’. And perhaps even more fascinating is the research that shows small children also don’t seem to make this kind of mistake – evidently they haven’t yet become too clever for their own good. As Professor Ayton suggested, perhaps house mice are more rational than theoretical biologists after all.

‘Quick and dirty’ decisions

The final speaker, Jeffrey Stevens, had come from a little further afield – the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. His talk looked at the evolution of decision-making, and how we manage in an ever-changing and unpredictable world. He explained that we just don’t have time to take everything into account when making a decision, so evolution has armed us with a set of ‘good enough’ rules to help us survive.

For example, we can (usually) catch a ball without really thinking about it. But we’re not doing complicated mathematical calculations to work out its speed and spin. In fact we rely on one simple rule – keeping the angle of our gaze constant as we go towards it. This works fine, so why confuse the issue? Other biases that are common are things like copying others when we’re not sure what to do in a social situation (‘I’ll have what he’s having…’), or steering clear of the unfamiliar (‘better the devil you know’). These are ‘quick and dirty’ rules that save time and effort.

So how did these rules evolve? Dr Stevens and others have been investigating whether different environments produce different kinds of rules in different species of animals. One study by Dr Stevens and others looked at chimpanzees and bonobos – two species of primate that are closely related but have very different lifestyles. As Stevens explained, chimps are hunters, while bonobos are mainly vegetarian ‘gatherers’.

The researchers tested captive chimps and bonobos, giving them the option of two different upturned bowls. One always had four pieces of grape underneath it, while the other sometimes had seven pieces, and sometimes only one (one and seven grapes came up equally often). The results showed that the chimps were more likely to take a risk on the uncertain bowl, and possibly get a bigger reward, while the bonobos preferred the safe option of four pieces of grape.

The theory is that because chimps are hunters, they face more risky situations when they’re finding food than the vegetarian bonobos. So this lifestyle may have made the chimps more likely to take risks, as the payoff could be big.

Human ‘intelligence’?

This kind of research is still in its early days, but it seems sensible to assume that an animal’s environment would have an important effect on how it makes decisions, and how its ‘quick and dirty’ rules for those decisions evolve. As Alex Kacelnik suggested during the discussion, perhaps it’s not an animal’s position on the tree of life that should determine how we assess its intelligence, but its environment. Maybe an invertebrate in a complex environment could be as ‘intelligent’ as a mammal or bird – just look at octopuses.

Professor Kacelnik’s own research on crows has exploded the myths that only mammals can make and use tools. I think research into decision-making shows that we aren’t necessarily top of the heap when it comes to making sense of our environment. Judging other animals by human standards of intelligence ignores the fact that different species have very different environments, and need different kinds of intelligence to survive. Being only as clever as you need to be sounds like a very good decision to me.

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One Response to “Making good decisions”

  1. Rebecca Says:

    Where is the research that shows that humans use reason? I would have thought that most evidence would point in the opposite direction…

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