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Cognition

(Ir)rational choices of humans, rhesus macaques, and capuchin monkeys in dynamic stochastic environments.


PMID 29852425

Abstract

Human and animal decision-making is known to violate rational expectations in a variety of contexts. Previous models suggest that statistical structures of real-world environments can favor such seemingly irrational behavior, but this has not been tested empirically. We tested 16 capuchin monkeys, seven rhesus monkeys, and 30 humans in a computerized experiment that implemented such stochastic environments. Subjects chose from among up to three options of different value that disappeared and became available again with different probabilities. All species overwhelmingly chose transitively (A > B > C) in the control condition, where doing so maximized overall gain. Most subjects also adhered to transitivity in the test condition, where it was suboptimal, but ultimately led to negligible losses compared to the optimal, non-transitive strategy. We used a modelling approach to show that differences in temporal discounting may account for this pattern of choices on a proximate level. Specifically, when short- and long-term goals are valued similarly, near-optimal decision rules can map onto rational choice principles. Such cognitive shortcuts have been argued to have evolved to preserve mental resources without sacrificing good decision-making, and here we provide evidence that these heuristics can provide almost identical outcomes even in situations in which they lead to suboptimal choices.

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