When I was younger, I watched “Who wants to be a millionaire?” on TV sometimes. You probably know this program or one like it, in which a participant has to choose a correct answer to a question from among a couple of options. When they choose the right answer, they can continue to play for an increasing prize, but when they are wrong, they lose most or all they have won so for. But there is also a third option – the participant can decide not to choose any of the answers, but to finish the game and take with them what they won so far. Of course, the last option only makes sense if the participant doesn’t know the answer to the question.
Many animals were tested in set-ups similar to “Who wants to be a millionaire?” and like humans, they more often chose to evade “answering” when the task was too difficult.
In one experiment, scientists trained a buttlenosed dolphin to press one button when it heard a high-pitched tone (2100 Hz) and another when the tone was lower (between 1200 and 2099 Hz). At the beginning the choice was easy – the sound was definitely low or high – but with time difficulty increased (with the lower sound getting closer to the border between high and low – 2099Hz).
When the dolphin pressed the appropriate button, he got a reward (praise and a fish). However, when he chose wrong, he got nothing and had to wait a while for a new sound and another chance. Then a new button was added between the original two. When the dolphin pressed it, he didn’t get a reward, but after a short delay, a new, easy trial began. However, when the dolphin chose this option too often, the delay increased.
What did the dolphin do? Initially, when the high and low sounds clearly differed from each other, the dolphin had no problem choosing the correct button. However, when the sound was harder to determine, he often showed signs of uncertainty – he moved more slowly to the buttons, hesitated between them, and it took him more time to decide. In addition, he chose the middle button more often – that is, he did not try to win the reward right away, but rather preferred to wait for the next attempt.
The scientists who conducted this study did the same experiment on humans (not under water, but at a computer). The human choices were practically the same as those of the dolphin. Most people said they chose the middle option when they weren’t sure if the sound they heard was low or high. Although the dolphins could not explain their choices, their behavior indicates that they may similarly evaluate their uncertainty and respond accordingly.
Similar experiments have shown that different species of monkeys, rats, pigeons, or even honey bees also avoid difficult choices, if possible. They seem to “know that they do not know”.
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