Starlings uphold principles of economic rationality for delay and probability of reward.
Monteiro T., Vasconcelos M., Kacelnik A.
Rationality principles are the bedrock of normative theories of decision-making in biology and microeconomics, but whereas in microeconomics, consistent choice underlies the notion of utility; in biology, the assumption of consistent selective pressures justifies modelling decision mechanisms as if they were designed to maximize fitness. In either case, violations of consistency contradict expectations and attract theoretical interest. Reported violations of rationality in non-humans include intransitivity (i.e. circular preferences) and lack of independence of irrelevant alternatives (changes in relative preference between options when embedded in different choice sets), but the extent to which these observations truly represent breaches of rationality is debatable. We tested both principles with starlings (Sturnus vulgaris), training subjects either with five options differing in food delay (exp. 1) or with six options differing in reward probability (exp. 2), before letting them choose repeatedly one option out of several binary and trinary sets of options. The starlings conformed to economic rationality on both tests, showing strong stochastic transitivity and no violation of the independence principle. These results endorse the rational choice and optimality approaches used in behavioural ecology, and highlight the need for functional and mechanistic enquiring when apparent violations of such principles are observed.