State-dependent decisions cause apparent violations of rationality in animal choice

PLoS Biol. 2004 Dec;2(12):e402. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0020402. Epub 2004 Nov 23.


Normative models of choice in economics and biology usually expect preferences to be consistent across contexts, or "rational" in economic language. Following a large body of literature reporting economically irrational behaviour in humans, breaches of rationality by animals have also been recently described. If proven systematic, these findings would challenge long-standing biological approaches to behavioural theorising, and suggest that cognitive processes similar to those claimed to cause irrationality in humans can also hinder optimality approaches to modelling animal preferences. Critical differences between human and animal experiments have not, however, been sufficiently acknowledged. While humans can be instructed conceptually about the choice problem, animals need to be trained by repeated exposure to all contingencies. This exposure often leads to differences in state between treatments, hence changing choices while preserving rationality. We report experiments with European starlings demonstrating that apparent breaches of rationality can result from state-dependence. We show that adding an inferior alternative to a choice set (a "decoy") affects choices, an effect previously interpreted as indicating irrationality. However, these effects appear and disappear depending on whether state differences between choice contexts are present or not. These results open the possibility that some expressions of maladaptive behaviour are due to oversights in the migration of ideas between economics and biology, and suggest that key differences between human and nonhuman research must be recognised if ideas are to safely travel between these fields.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal*
  • Biodiversity
  • Birds
  • Choice Behavior*
  • Decision Making*
  • Environment
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Logic
  • Social Behavior
  • Starlings