Foraging in Lab and Life

In medical research it is well established that the biology of rats and mice is sufficiently similar to humans that these nonhuman species are used routinely and without challenge to further the knowledge on which our continued good health often depends.  In considering the study of behavior, the practice often seems viewed with more skepticism in some quarters, despite the fact that behavior analysis is replete with examples of how basic findings from laboratory studies of nonhumans directly apply to naturally occurring behavior in everyday settings. Applied behavior analysts use these findings to ameliorate human suffering and potentiate human performance. But applied behavior analysis is not the only example of the direct relevance of basic behavior-analytic research to the understanding of behavior in the so-called natural environment.    

A particularly creative example was provided by behavior analyst William Baum some years ago. He began with a finding from the study of choice behavior, where a pigeon has two alternatives. One alternative is associated with a high rate of reinforcement of a measured response, say pecking a plastic disc or key (a key peck) and the other with less frequent reinforcement for pecking a second disc/key. Under these conditions, the pigeon distributes its behavior between the two discs/keys in proportion to the proportion of reinforcers associated with pecking either key. Thus if we arrange half the reinforcers for responding on one key and half on the other, half the total responses will be on each key. If, however, a quarter of the reinforcers are on one key and three quarters on the other, the responses will be distributed such that a quarter are on the first key and three quarters on the other one. In general, then, pigeons’ responses between two alternatives match the relative frequency of reinforcement of the responses at either alternative. This is called the matching law.  

Baum asked whether this relation would hold among a group of feral pigeons outside the laboratory. He set in his window a metal panel containing two pigeon keys and a device for delivering a small amount of grain. One key was programmed to deliver reinforcers following key pecks at one rate and the other key was similarly programmed to arrange reinforcers at another rate. Then Baum waited…. Before too long pigeons began appearing at the panel. They then started pecking the keys. Any pigeon who showed up could peck either key, the only thing Baum did was keep the grain hopper filled and record the total number of times either key was pecked as he, from time to time, varied the rate of reinforcement for pecking either key. At the end of the experiment he replicated, with a group of feral pigeons, findings previously observed with individual pigeons under highly controlled laboratory conditions: pecking either key matches the rate of reinforcement of either choice.

Once again, a basic laboratory finding held under natural conditions.  Only here it was in a natural nonhuman animal environment rather than, in examples from applied behavior analysis, a human one. Also, the finding held even though it was obtained when many, instead of just an individual, contributed their data. The matching law has been applied to any situation where there are multiple sources of reinforcement: animals, including people, foraging for food; children selecting playmates; basketball players making their shot selections; and employees choosing among activities to work on. Laboratory research is not only relevant, but it provides a framework for seeing commonalities among our diverse and very human activities. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.