Bird brains? U of M research finds blue jays who learn patience cooperate


In the animal kingdom it's normally every bird for himself. But a University of Minnesota biologist's work with blue jays suggests they can learn to co-operate if they first learn to be patient.

The Pioneer Press reports on the work of David Stephens, who will describe some of his findings at a Minneapolis event next week.

For years Stephens has used mind games to test the decisions blue jays make about whether to show cooperation, betrayal, or generosity toward one another. The Pioneer Press says one of his main tools is a game known as Prisoner's Dilemma. It tests the extent to which partners in crime will protect their conspiracy or rat each other out, particularly as the rewards for each shift.

In the Pioneer Press and in an article in Science News, Stephens explains his work found the birds would naturally betray one another, especially when it led to immediate rewards. But a turning point came when the jays began to learn patience by seeing food pellets accumulate in a clear plastic container.

Once the birds saw their responses could result in a little food now or more food after awhile, their decisions began to change. They then showed more generosity in making choices that affected what their partner received and partners reciprocated, Stephens says.

Stephens is a professor in the Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior Department at the U of M's College of Biological Sciences. His work with blue jays dates back 20 years to his days at the University of Nebraska. His work with blue jays is part of the study of learning, decision-making, and memory.

The Pioneer Press notes some observers think understanding what makes birds cooperate could have implications for helping humans work together. (Does Congress know about this?)

There's more here on the Prisoner's Dilemma and its use in studying the balance between cooperation and competition.

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