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If Birds Can Do It, What's Wrong With Us?

© Dawn di Lorenzo

Blue jays, in a lab experiment, will cooperate with a partner for mutual benefit, e.g., food, given time to think.

Reciprocity influences a bird's decision to cooperate, and in the wild many animals cooperate where no one benefits unless all act together. In past experiments, however, according to a report in Science News ("Trust That Bird? A bit of future-think lets jays cooperate", by S. Milius, December 14, 2002, Vol 162, page 373.), the animals always seemed to cheat given an opportunity.

Does this sound familiar?

David W. Stephens of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities figured out why. He hypothesized that the experimental animals didn't cooperate with each other because they discounted future possibilities of shared food for immediate gain. In an experiment between two birds, the test bird reduced its cooperation as soon as it got its reward. Same when the "partner" remained steadily uncooperative.

However, the test birds sustained reciprocity when rewards were delayed and the animals could focus on long-term consequences and the "neighbor" cooperated, too.

When will people learn?

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