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Impulsive behavior may be relict of hunter-gatherer past

Drawing on experiments with blue jays, a team of University of Minnesota researchers has found what may be the evolutionary basis for impulsive behavior. Such behavior may have evolved because in the wild, snatching up small rewards like food morsels rather than waiting for something bigger and better to come along can lead to getting more rewards in the long run. The work may help explain why many modern-day humans find it so hard to turn down an immediate reward--for example, food, money, sex or euphoria--rather than investing and waiting for a bigger reward later. The work will be published in the Dec. 7 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society (London).

In experiments with blue jays, David Stephens, a professor of ecology, evolution and behavior in the university's College of Biological Sciences, found that birds presented with a choice of getting a small food reward immediately or waiting a short time for a bigger one could not be trained to wait, even after a thousand repetitions. Many researchers have explained such impulsiveness as the result of the bird "discounting" the value of a delayed reward--that is, instinctively realizing that a reward delayed may be a reward denied because conditions can change while the bird is waiting. But the birds' impulsiveness was simply too strong to explain that way, Stephens said.

"I think we were asking them the wrong question," he explained. "In nature, they don't often encounter a situation where they must give up a better, but delayed, food morsel when they grab a quick meal. So we designed an experiment that better modeled real life in the wild."

The new experiments were modeled on how animals encounter and exploit food clumps. The jays encountered one clump at a time and obtained some food from it. Then they had to decide whether to wait for a bit more from the same clump or leave and search for another clump. Not surprisingly, the birds still acted impulsively, preferring items the
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Contact: Deane Morrison
morri029@umn.edu
612-624-2346
University of Minnesota
6-Dec-2004


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