Animal Instincts; January 2011; Scientific American Magazine; by John Allen Paulos; 1 Page(s)
A number of recent news stories have had a similar kind of message: animals viscerally understand certain mathematical operations better than humans do. Such stories are always interesting in a Sunday-newspaper sort of way, but do the abilities of animals to calculate really exceed those of humans? It may help to examine some of these claims.
In the infamous Monty Hall Problem, named after the television game show, human subjects seem to pale next to pigeons in mathematical reasoning. A guest on the show has to choose among three doors, behind one of which is a prize. The guest states his choice, and the host opens one of the two remaining closed doors, always being careful that it is one behind which there is no prize. Should the guest switch to the remaining closed door? Most people choose to stay with their original choice, which is wrong—switching would increase their chance of winning from 1/3 to 2/3. (There is a 1/3 chance that the guest’s original pick was correct, and that does not change.) Even after playing the game many times, which would afford ample opportunity to observe that switching doubles the chances of winning, most people in a recent study switched only 2/3 of the time. Pigeons did better. After a few tries, the birds learn to switch every time.