If someone comes up to you and says they have bad news, do you want them to tell you – or would you rather they left you in blissful ignorance?
It turns out that pigeons prefer to hear the worst. They are so keen to learn the information, they are willing to forego food to do so.
Obviously, the scientists who did this study did not walk up to pigeons and start reading to them from a newspaper.
Instead, they gave the pigeons a choice between knowing what would come next – even if it was bad news – or remaining ignorant. In both cases, the "news" related to a food reward.
Inês Fortes of the University of Minho in Guimarães, Portugal and her colleagues placed six pigeons in boxes. There, they were trained to peck at two white plastic disks, which could be illuminated with different coloured lights. The colours indicated whether or not food would be given.
The pigeons were ignoring the fact that, 80% of the time, tapping left would not get them any food
If the pigeon tapped the disk on the left, it lit up either red or green. Red (good news) meant food would be presented after 10 seconds, while green (bad news) meant no food was forthcoming.
The red light was only presented 20% of the time, with the green occurring for the remaining 80%. This meant that if, a pigeon consistently tapped left, it would only get food about once every 13 minutes.
However, if the pigeon tapped the disk on the right, it lit up yellow or blue. This did not tell the pigeon anything: the food was given at random, regardless of the colour.
Overall, a pigeon that consistently tapped right got more food than one that consistently tapped left. But despite this, the pigeons preferred to tap left.
The birds were choosing what the researchers called the "informative choice" – one where they would know the outcome.
In a sense, the pigeons were ignoring the fact that, 80% of the time, tapping left would not get them any food. They even did so when the wait for food from a red light increased from ten seconds to three minutes.
"Even though they only received food once every 13 minutes in the informative option, and once every 23 seconds in the non-informative option, they still preferred the former," says Fortes.
This study shows, she says, that animals do not always see the world as we do.
Fortes did not expect the pigeons to ignore the negative consequences of the "informative choice".
Pigeons – and animals in general – are primed to attend to reliable signals, even if they signal bad news
The results, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, reveal that the pigeons are willing to eat less food, as long as they get more information about whether it will come or not, says co-author Marco Vasconcelos of the University of Oxford in the UK.
Vasconcelos stresses that the pigeons were not forced to prefer a particular option. "Once they learn what each colour means, they are free to choose, but they systematically choose the option that yields less food to obtain information about the trial outcome," he says.
Their choice makes sense when you consider the behaviour of birds foraging for food in the wild.
If a bird discovers there is no food at a given location, it will "redirect its search", says Vasconcelos. "If on the other hand, the signal is that food is available, it will continue searching at that place. So in a sense, pigeons – and animals in general – are primed to attend to reliable signals, even if they signal bad news."
Scientists had already found cases of animals ignoring bad outcomes, but these results "reinforce that fact," says Fortes.
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