Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Context-Dependent Preferences in Birds

     This study illustrates how "irrational preferences" may form in birds, and supports a view I have found present in most economists, though not often seen in print.  This view is that the brain did not evolve nor does it gather information to perform well on one particular choice or experiment, but to perform well in all of life.    
     When you consider any one specific choice, especially if that choice opportunity is unusual and novel, both birds and people may seem to make irrational preferences, in that they pay attention to contextual clues which are irrelevant to the actual choice.  For example, you may express a higher value for wine in an experiment if you are randomly assigned an ID number that takes a high value.  Birds may respond to signals from a research that were relevant in another, similar choice opportunity, but not the present one.
     The researchers found that even though the birds relied to heavily on contextual signals in one particular experiment, the birds performed better across a larger array of experiments because they rely on contextual clues (that is my take one the study, and I only read a summary of it).  Similarly, humans respond to their environment because most of the time the environment matters.  Behavioral economists may conclude me to be predictably irrational if he narrows his range of inspection sufficiently small, but I will continue to live my life as if the context of my surroundings matter...just like the birds.

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