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Parrots make complex economic decisions to maximise rewards

Parrots are capable of making economic decisions to receive greater rewards, according to a new study from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology. This ability is considered cognitively complex and could shed some light on how parrots in the wild make decisions about how they interact with their environment.

Economic decision-making involves weighing up differently beneficial alternatives to maximise payoff. This sometimes requires foregoing one’s desire for immediate rewards.

This ability to delay gratification and make the correct economic decision is considered cognitively challenging because it requires not only controlling one’s impulses, but also assessing the value of different options to decide whether waiting is worthwhile. Now, a team of researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology has been investigating whether parrots can make economic decisions, too.

The birds were initially taught how to trade three different types of token for food of either low, medium or high value. Subsequently, they were given the choice between an instant food reward and one of the tokens. The parrots only rejected the immediate reward and chose the token if the token’s value corresponded to higher quality food, demonstrating an ability to inhibit their immediate impulses for greater reward in the future.

These results show that parrots are capable of deliberate and profit-maximising decisions. Dr Auguste von Bayern, leader of the Comparative Cognition Group, said: “Given that wild parrots are so difficult to track, to date we know little about the ecological challenges most parrots encounter in their habitats in the wild, such as deciding where to go and how long to stay in a given feeding site. However, in our experimental setting we have found that they are capable of making surprisingly subtle decisions to maximise their payoff while minimising their effort. This is a fascinating indication that such decisions may matter greatly in their natural environment.”

At the same time, the results provided evidence that certain motivational factors can influence decision-making. For some individuals in the experiment, the token itself apparently had an intrinsic value that prevented them from choosing economically in control tasks. This finding will have to be taken into account when planning future token exchange studies with parrots.

The results of the study were published in Scientific Reports (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-018-30933-5).