pigeon patrolHumans could be more efficient if they learnt from pigeons and stopped thinking about what they are doing, according to scientists.

Switching between making a phone call and writing an email led to more mistakes as humans stopped doing one thing and started another.

Scientists at the University of Exeter carried out research to compare a human’s ability to switch between tasks with that of pigeons.

They found that while the birds’ way of learning to do tasks associatively caused no decrease in accuracy, humans incurred costs – in that they were slower and made more mistakes when they switched tasks.

Previous studies have shown that people are faster and more accurate when they repeat the same task than when they do something different.

The work of PhD student Christina Meier and professors Stephen Lea and Ian McLaren revealed that pigeons who learnt a task associatively by means of Pavlovian conditioning were able to switch between tasks without slowing down or making more errors.

Ms Meier, the lead author, said: “We looked at why humans make more errors when they move between two different tasks whereas pigeons don’t. Pigeons don’t analyse what they see.

“If they experienced a given situation before, the pigeons will repeat the behaviour that had the best outcome for them in those previous encounters. Humans don’t do this, we use rules. We make things complicated.”

Prof McLaren said: “We are not saying that pigeons are super clever. What this research shows is that we can teach pigeons to swap between tasks at no cost to their efficiency, and that they appear to be doing it without what psychologists call ‘executive control’.

“We suspect humans have access to this associative solution to the problem too and this has educational implications, skills implications and implications for our understanding of human behaviour.”

The study, Task-Switching in Pigeons: Associative Learning or Executive Control?, is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition.


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