September 20, 2021

The science magazine of Imperial College

# Bird Brainiacs

Fact of the Day #2

Pigeons are smarter than most mathematicians. Well, they are if you look at one specific mathematical conundrum called the Monty Hall Problem. The name  comes from the host of an American quiz show, who, at the end of each show, offered a contestant the chance to win a prize. The prize (a new car) was hidden behind one of three doors; behind the other doors lay goats. The contestant first picked one of the doors. Monty, would then proceed to open one of the remaining doors revealing a goat. The contestant then gets the chance to either keep the door they’ve chosen, or switch to the other.

For decades, mathematicians believed that the chance of winning the car was 50/50 –  after all there’s two doors to choose from. However, we now know  that switching doors is the safe bet.  The following video explains why:

The amazing thing is that pigeons, with no conscious knowledge of statistics or probability, figured out that switching doors gives you a much higher chance of winning, not a car in their case, some lovely, tasty grain. Human beings have an unfortunate habit of thinking they are right nearly 100% of the time (of this I’m nearly 100% sure), and so very rarely switch choices given the choice. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two from our humble, feathered friends.