(ANIMAL SCIENCE) A recent study conducted by the University of Oxford demonstrates how in certain instances European starlings make better choices when they have less information. The research focuses on irrational behavior and aims to identify the decision processes used by animals and humans. Read on to learn more about this fascinating study. — Global Animal
A study trained starlings to peck at colored keys to get food. Photo Credit: Alejandro Kacelnik

New York Times, Sindya N. Bhanoo

Often, information is power. But sometimes it isn’t, a new study on European starlings suggests.

Esteban Freidin and Alex Kacelnik, behavioral ecologists at the University of Oxford, found that in certain instances the birds make better choices when they have less information.

The researchers trained starlings to peck at colored keys that yielded food pellets after various time delays. Key A yielded pellets the fastest, followed by keys B, C and D. After training, the birds were able to make optimal choices about which keys to peck in order to get food the fastest.

The researchers also trained the birds to expect keys as combinations. For instance, they were trained to see keys A and B together, and C and D together. They learned that A was always better than B, and C was always better than D.

The confusion arose when the birds were presented with keys B and C together. Although B offered a food pellet faster than C, the birds were not able to put this information in context for the combination. The findings appear in the journal Science.

In the wild, the ability to make good decisions in sequence may be more important to a starling, which generally walks through short grass in search of prey, digs into the soil with its bill and then decides whether the site is worth pursuing.

At times, humans also make what appear to be irrational choices, Dr. Kacelnik said — when picking among various brands at the store, for instance.

“It has become now very popular now among behavioral economists to highlight irrationalities in human behavior,” he said. “This research is aimed at identifying the decision processes used by animals and humans.”

More New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/22/science/presentation