Tuesday, November 6, 2007
I didn't want that green M&M anyway - Cognitive Strategies in Monkeys
John Tierney writes in today's Science Times of a Yale study reporting the ability of monkeys and 4-year-old humans to rationalize. They can alter their originally demonstrated preferences when they do not actually get what they prefer, as was observed in a classic 1956 experiment with adults. In the original experiment, a subject rates a pile of wedding gifts. They prefer the sandwich press over the stop watch and prepare to take it home. The experimenter then confesses that they cannot take anything with them, but would they please rate the items once more. Upon second rating, the stop watch is accorded a higher rating than the sandwich press. Hmmmm - is it self-delusion (that's what I wanted all along), showing off their maturity (I didn't really need a sandwich maker), or subtle anger (I didn't want your stupid sandwich maker anyway!). Cognitive psychologist Leon Festinger said that we often cope with a clash between attitude and their action - cognitive dissonance - by realigning our attitudes, i.e. we rationalize. This study concludes that children and capuchin monkeys may have the same ability.
The study written about today tested their monkeys using M&Ms. They declared their preference for given colors by choosing them most often. When they were given the color less preferred they then began choosing that one more frequently (i.e. the experimenters concluded, they switched their preference). As my mother used to say when my sister and I fought for the green ones, 'they're the same.' There is no actual difference between different colored M&Ms, except the color. I would like to actually know the standard used to characterize 'preference' that is, how many times did a monkey have to choose a red one before the experimenters concluded they were preferred? I would also like to know if the complete stash of M&Ms were visible. Could the monkeys have simply concluded that perhaps there were no more of their favorite color available and that some chocolate was better than none at all?
As the article points out, this behavior is useful - if nature is not dealing you what you most prefer, why whine or second guess? It's much more practical to make lemonade when your dealt lemons and put your attention to the next problem. There is an adaptive advantage to this strategy. However, this study makes me wonder about two cases not examined here: 1)This study and the original look at two fairly equal but unimportant choices. It's all candy anyway. The monkey's aren't choosing the food they need to survive. Choosing the preferred color or the less preferred one - there's no bad choice - they're both extra calories consumed in chocolate. The subject is giving up a free sandwich maker she never planned to own in the first place. Oh well. I wonder what would happen if the choices were similarly equal, but more important? 2)This experiment offered presumably healthy subjects a certain number of mild dissonances but haven't you listened to someone complain about not getting what they wanted and NOT rationalizing, even when it wasn't that important? They couldn't see the movie and they were so disappointed they went home, they were out of Chunky Monkey ice cream and just didn't want any other flavor. He was all set to date this guy he met twice and really liked and now he finds out he's going out with someone else and consequently hates all men. When do we rationalize and when don't we? Is rationalization the default mechanism? Always? Are there differences among individuals, e.g. do those with depression rationalize less skillfully or somehow loose the talent altogether? When does it tip the balance from practical survival mechanism to dangerous self-delusion? This study is an interesting addition to the classic work done by Dr. Festinger and, as with most studies, it prompts more questions that it answers for me.