60-Second Science

Pigeons Gamble on Unlikely Jackpot over Small Sure Things

Pigeons chose a big payoff option that only hit 20 percent of the time over a small payoff that had better returns in the long run. Karen Hopkin reports

Blackjack, slot machines, good ol’ Texas hold’em. People love to gamble. And we’re not the only ones. A new study shows that pigeons will also pass up a sure thing in the hopes of a big payoff. The work appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. [Thomas Zentall and Jessica Stagner, "Maladaptive choice behaviour by pigeons: an animal analogue and possible mechanism for gambling (sub-optimal human decision-making behavior"]

Theories about foraging say that animals should stick with the proverbial bird in the hand, especially when it comes to food. Eating is key to survival, so clever critters shouldn’t take unnecessary chances. But these new findings suggest that pigeons don’t always play it safe.

Scientists set up an avian casino in which pigeons could place their bets on one of two symbols. Peck at symbol 1 and you get three food pellets. Never more, never less. Symbol 2 was the wildcard. Choose that one and 20 percent of the time, you’ll hit the jackpot: 10 food pellets. The rest of the time you’ll get nothing. But the lure of the big win was too hard to resist: pigeons chose to gamble more than 80 percent of the time, even though, on average, that path paid out fewer pellets.

Perhaps it’s the joy of a pleasant surprise. Because even for a literal bird brain, hitting the lottery is a hoot.

—Karen Hopkin

[The above text is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

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