7 March 2013

Limitations to the Cleverness of Squirrels

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:21 pm

Recently we replaced the old bird feeder, which had been gnawed beyond functionality by the squirrels, with a new supposedly squirrel-proof model. The design is fairly ingenious. Like ordinary feeders, the cylindrical tube containing the seeds has holes drilled into its sides with pegs mounted under the holes, allowing birds to perch while extracting seeds through the holes with their beaks. This feeder has a separate shell surrounding the cylinder, spring-mounted so that when a creature heavier than a bird climbs onto the feeder the shell sags down under the creature’s weight, closing the holes and thus denying access to the seeds within.

But squirrels are nothing if not persistent: if there is a design flaw they will eventually discover it. The base of this feeder is attached not to the outer shell but to the inner cylinder. Consequently, a squirrel standing with its back feet on the base puts no weight on the spring-loaded shell and thus the holes remain open. A squirrel figuring out this trick can stand there as long as it likes gorging on seeds.

Two squirrels live in our back yard. One of them has figured out how to outwit the squirrel-proof feeder; so far the other one has not. It took several days for the successful one to zero in on the invariants of the trick. After a few days of frustration it began to bounce up and down on the feeder, causing the gravity-activated shell to bounce too. When in the low-gravity “up” position the shell would slide up and the holes would re-open momentarily. During this brief interval of low relative gravity the squirrel would stick its paw into one of the holes and try to pull out a seed before the gravity of the downward bounce closed the aperture again. Eventually the squirrel discovered that crawling down onto the feeder, spinning 180 degrees vertically so that its head is facing up, and then resting its weight on the feeder’s base is a successful behavior sequence for keeping the holes open and the food accessible. It isn’t necessary for the successful squirrel to acquire explicit understanding of the cause-effect relationships involved; the squirrel need only recognize that its behavior has achieved the desired result. The other squirrel, the one that hasn’t yet succeeded, seems equally motivated, repeatedly climbing onto the feeder, gnawing at the lid and the wire mesh with which the gravity-activated shell is surrounded. I suspect that eventually the failing squirrel too will succeed.

Squirrels are clever. They’re good at figuring out complicated behavior sequences that give them access to food. Once they figure out the trick they remember it, performing the maneuver more quickly and efficiently over repeated sessions. What squirrels aren’t very good at is learning by imitation. You’d think that the failing squirrel would learn the trick by watching the successful one. But this requires the failing squirrel to realize that: (1) the successful squirrel’s behavior is motivated, even if that motivation is unconscious to the squirrel; (2) the failing squirrel shares the same motivation as the successful squirrel; and so (3) it would be a good idea to imitate the successful squirrel’s motivated behavior.

Squirrels are independent experiential learners. However, squirrels do not occupy joint attentional scenes with their fellow squirrels, and so they’re poor imitative learners. Humans are very good imitators. I can imagine two seed-loving humans living in the back yard. One of them struggles to figure out how to outwit the feeder, the other sits under the tree and waits. Once the experimental innovator succeeds, the observer watches, imitates, and succeeds too, without all the fuss and frustration of learning the trick by trial and error. I once took an MBA course in organizational innovation at the university where I got my doctorate. “Be a quick second,” was the key advice proffered by the professor.


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