The Wisdom of Not Being Too Rational


Many children (and adults) have heard Aesop’s fable about the crow and the pitcher. A thirsty crow comes across a pitcher partly filled with water but can’t reach the water with his beak. So he keeps dropping pebbles into the pitcher until the water level rises high enough. A new study finds that both young children and members of the crow family are good at solving this problem, but children appear to learn it in a very different ways from birds.

Recent studies, particularly ones conducted by Nicola Clayton’s experimental psychology group at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom have shown that members of the crow family are no birdbrains when it comes to cognitive abilities. They can make and use tools, plan for the future, and possibly even figure out what other birds are thinking, although that last claim is currently being debated. A few years ago, two members of Clayton’s group showed that rooks can learn to drop stones into a water-filled tube to get at a worm floating on the surface. And last year, a team led by Clayton’s graduate student Lucy Cheke reported similar experiments with Eurasian jays: Using three different experimental setups, Cheke and her colleagues found that the jays could solve the puzzle as long as the basic mechanism responsible for raising the water level was clear to the birds.

To explore how learning in children might differ from rooks, jays, and other members of the highly intelligent crow family, Cheke teamed up with a fellow Clayton lab member, psychologist Elsa Loissel, to try the same three experiments on local schoolchildren aged 4 to 10 years. Eighty children were recruited for the experiments, which took place at their school with the permission of their parents.

In all three experiments, instead of worms, the children tried to retrieve red tokens that they could exchange for colorful stickers depicting animals, pirates, and other images. (The team found that both younger and older children were keenly interested in having the stickers.)

In the first experiment, the children were presented with two tubes, one filled with water and the other with sawdust, and had to decide which one to drop marbles into to get a token from inside.

The second experiment featured just one tube filled with water, but the children had to choose between two different objects to put into it—a cork ball that floated, or a marble that sunk.

Written By: Michael Balter
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  1. If the tube is half filled with water and the token floats, then dropping pebbles in will help get at the token. If the token is not buoyant,  no number of pebbles will help the students get at it.

  2. The author of the title is a fool. Success never came from being irrational, wisely or otherwise; it came from being rational in the sense of being empirical.

  3. I wonder how is it that birds or fish can all suddenly change direction in unison, or how a pigeon can find his way home?

  4. Reading the comments helped me see some of the problems with this study. As someone put it, the kids assumed that there was a solution to the problem. Did the adults set up the children to keep trying (and in turn win their approval. Plus stickers too!) I wonder, how is it that some people (adults) continue to explore and pursue something, while others give up or do not even try? Do some see the possibility of something while others do not. Everyone has met someone with blind faith while a more capable person questions and doubts.

    Animals will pursue a prey, but give up at some point when they see their efforts as fruitless. People do this also. Would the children have continued if they were not prompted? Children certainly like to have approval of adults. I have also seen first hand what kids will do if they know that a rewards of stickers is being offered. I doubt the researchers could have been able to effectively communicate to the bird that an exchange of a bowl of worms were being offered as a reward.

  5.  Exactly, Jos. I wondered if the title was written by a Creationist! It certainly seems phrased to encourage them.

  6. >The second experiment featured just one tube filled with water, but the children had to choose between two different objects to put into it—a cork ball that floated, or a marble that sunk.

    The crows are never given such hints. The crucial idea is dropping things in the tube to make things rise.  The rest are experimental details.

  7. Just recently magnetic particles were found in some cells in the brain. These were found to change direction  and always point in the same direction. They isolated the cells and were able to rotate the particles using a weak magnetic field.

  8.  An annoying article that at the end jumps to a false conclusion. Just because children can learn a complicated task with invisible factors does not mean they learn irrationally. It just means that they continue experimenting, as every scientist does, until some of their experiments produce results. The last paragraph is simply the author revealing his own bias, in defending the oxymoronic concept of  ‘irrational’ learning.

  9. It is only when some portion of the puzzle is obscured that there is any need to employ rationality, otherwise it’s just a simple exercise in logical deduction.

  10. I think it’s typical for humans to continue looking for a solution, especially when it becomes hard. “We choose to go to the moon and do the other thing, not because they were easy but because they were hard” a famous president ones said. It’s true we tend to inspire and coach each other as well, something other animals don’t (well, I don’t know of any such behavior in animals, does anybody?).

  11. Klaasjansch – that famous president was not being honest. They didn’t go to the moon for any scientific or even very admirable reason. They simply wanted to beat the Soviet Union to it.

  12. why is the motivation to beat the soviets not admirable? i guess missile capabilities and installation in the uk when the soviets were around wasnt very admirable either?

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