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Birds, children show similar abilities for “Aesop’s fable” riddle

July 26, 2012
Courtesy of PLoS One
and World Science staff

Birds in the crow family can fig­ure out how to ex­tract a treat from a half-empty glass sur­pris­ingly well, and young chil­dren show si­m­i­lar pat­terns of be­hav­ior, re­search has found.

Chil­dren perform at a sim­i­lar level to the birds un­til they reach about eight years of age, at which point their per­for­mance sur­passes that of our feath­ered friends, according to psych­ol­og­ists. A re­port on the find­ings is pub­lished on­line in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One.

The re­search­ers, led by Ni­co­la Clay­ton of the Uni­vers­ity of Cam­bridge, used a ver­sion of the rid­dle com­monly re­ferred to as “Ae­sop’s fa­ble” to test learn­ing and problem-solving abil­ity. In pre­vi­ous work, the re­search­ers had pre­sented the birds with a par­tially filled glass of wa­ter, with a worm float­ing just out of reach. The birds were al­so of­fered dif­fer­ent tools, like rocks or Sty­ro­foam blocks, and were able to fig­ure out which items, when dropped in­to the glass, would cause the wa­ter lev­el to rise so that they could reach the treat.

In the new work, the re­search­ers al­so tested the abil­ity of chil­dren be­tween the ages of four and ten on a si­m­i­lar task: re­triev­ing a float­ing to­ken in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent sce­nar­i­os. 

The re­search­ers found that chil­dren be­tween the ages of five and sev­en per­formed con­sist­ently with the birds; both learn­ed how to ac­com­plish the task af­ter about five tri­als. Chil­dren eight years and old­er suc­ceeded in all tasks on their first try.

The study was aimed at find­ing out wheth­er birds and chil­dren learn in the same way, said co-author Lu­cy Cheke, al­so of the Uni­vers­ity of Cam­bridge. Based on the re­sults, she said, it seems they don’t. In one var­i­ant of the test, it turned out that the birds would not learn to drop stones to get food if the mech­an­ism al­low­ing this to hap­pen was hid­den from their view. Chil­dren, on the oth­er hand, were will­ing to try this, even though it looked like it would­n’t work. 

“It is chil­dren’s job to learn about the world,” Cheke said, “and they can’t do that when they are lim­it­ed by a pre­con­ceived idea about what is or is not pos­si­ble. For a child, if it works, it works.”


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Birds in the crow family can figure out how to extract a treat from a half-empty glass surprisingly well, and young children show similar patterns of behavior, a study has found. The research suggests children learn in a similar manner to the birds until they reach about eight years old, at which point their performance surpasses that of the birds. A report on the findings is published July 25 in the research journal PLoS One. The researchers, led by Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge, used a version of the riddle commonly referred to as “Aesop’s fable” to test learning and problem-solving ability. In previous work, the researchers had presented the birds with a partially filled glass of water, with a worm floating just out of reach. The birds were also offered different tools, like rocks or Styrofoam blocks, and were able to figure out which items, when dropped into the glass, would cause the water level to rise so that they could reach the treat. In the new work, the researchers also tested the ability of children between the ages of four and ten on a similar task: retrieving a floating token in a number of different scenarios. The researchers found that children between the ages of five and seven performed consistently with the birds; both learned how to accomplish the task after about five trials. Children eight years and older succeeded in all tasks on their first try. The study was aimed at finding out whether birds and children learn in the same way, said co-author Lucy Cheke, also of the University of Cambridge. Based on the results, she said, it seems they don’t. In one variant of the test, it turned out that the birds would not learn to drop stones to get food if the mechanism allowing this to happen was hidden from their view. Children, on the other hand, were willing to try this, even though it looked like it wouldn’t work. “It is children’s job to learn about the world,” Cheke said, “and they can’t do that when they are limited by a preconceived idea about what is or is not possible. For a child, if it works, it works.”