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Mathematicians vs. Birds vs. Monty Hall

In the famous Monty Hall problem, you’re presented with three closed doors and asked to pick the one that hides a prize. One door — not the one you chose — is opened to reveal…no prize. You may have chosen the right door. But if given the chance to switch to the other still-closed door, should you?

The short answer is: Yes, if the person offering you the choice knows what’s behind the doors. (Go here for a fuller explanation or watch the clip above if you want the Kevin Spacey version).

Now let’s say you presented the Monty Hall problem to both birds and humans. But you don’t just present the problem once, you present it a bunch of times to see whether birds or humans learn better from experience. That’s what the authors of “Are Birds Smarter Than Mathematicians?” did in a study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. And the winners are …

Birds. From the paper:

Taken together, these experiments show that pigeons can learn to respond optimally in a simulation of the MHD [Monty Hall Dilemma]. Furthermore, they also suggest that birds learn to respond optimally based on feedback received from completed trials … The surprising implication is that pigeons seem to solve the puzzle, arriving at the optimal solution while most humans do not.

The authors, Walter T. Herbranson and Julia Schroeder of Whitman College, think this might be because of our knowledge of probabilities, theoretical baggage that the pigeons in the study don’t have to deal with. Also, humans tend to be less excited about mixed grain.

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