About us: We own the Wild Birds Unlimited nature shop in East Lansing, Michigan,
a store that provides a wide variety of supplies to help you enjoy the birdwatching hobby.

This blog was created to answer frequently asked questions & to share nature stories and photographs.
To contribute, email me at bloubird@gmail.com.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

In honor of hard working Squirrels everywhere

Many animals prefer working for their food, rather than getting it for free, defying standard economic theory.

In honor of January 21st Squirrel Appreciation Day I would like to share a scientific theory on why those pesky squirrels work so hard to eat bird food.

The following is adapted from The Upside of Irrationaity: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home by Dan Ariely, HarperCollins (2010).

"Contrafreeloading," a term coined by the animal psychologist Glen Jensen, refers to the finding that many animals prefer to earn food rather than simply eating identical, but freely accessible, food found in a dish nearby.

To better understand the joy of working for food, Jensen first took adult male albino rats and tested their appetite for labor. Imagine that you are a rat participating in Jensen's study. After a few days of having a nice man in a white lab coat giving you lab crackers precisely at noon, you learn to expect food at noon every day, and your rat tummy begins rumbling right before the nice man shows up -- exactly the state Jensen wants you in.

Once your body is conditioned to eating crackers at noon, things suddenly change. Instead of feeding you at the time of your maximal hunger, you have to wait another hour, and at one o'clock, the man picks you up and puts you in a box with bar that you accidentally press, and immediately a pellet of food is released. Wonderful! You press the bar again. Oh joy! -- another pellet comes out. You press again and again, eating happily, but then the light goes off, and at the same time, the bar stops releasing food pellets. You soon learn that when the light is off, no matter how much you press the bar, you don't get any food.

Just then the man in the lab coat opens the top of the cage and places a tin cup in a corner of the cage. You don't pay attention to the cup; you just want the bar to start producing food again. You press and press, but nothing happens. As long as the light is off, pressing the bar does you no good. You wander around the cage, cursing under your rat breath, and go over to the tin cup. "Oh my! It's full of pellets! Free food!" You begin chomping away, and then suddenly the light comes on again. Now you realize that you have two possible food sources. You can keep on eating the free food from the tin cup, or you can go back to the bar and press it for food pellets. If you were this rat, what would you do?

Assuming you were like all but one of the two hundred rats in Jensen's study, you would decide not to feast entirely from the tin cup. Sooner or later you would return to the bar and press it for food.

Jensen discovered that many animals- including fish, birds, gerbils, rats, mice, monkeys and chimpanzees-tend to prefer a longer, more indirect route to food than a shorter, more direct one. That is, as long as the animal doesn't have to work too hard, he'll frequently prefer to earn his food. In fact, among all the animals tested so far the only species that prefers the "lazy" route is the commendably rational cat which prefers to be served.

The general idea of contrafreeloading contradicts the simple economic view that organisms will always choose to maximize their reward while minimizing their effort.
Watch the video: http://youtu.be/Y0NxxZWMOMQ
For more information:
3. NPR interview of behavioral economist Dan Ariely about his new book, The Upside of Irrationality.