New Research: Babies and Birds

crow photo

Who wins when smart crows and kids match wits? New Caledonian crows are tops in tool-making, but humans master innovation.

I-LABS' Anna Waismeyer and Andrew Meltzoff collaborated with an international team of scientists to study cognition and problem solving in babies and birds. Crows are famous for their use of tools to solve problems. The study, published by the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, is an important test of whether the birds or humans could do better on a task that tapped both tool use and innovative thinking.

Writing a Dec. 19 article in the Wall Street Journal, Alison Gopnik, a co-author and a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, explained the study in which crows and human toddlers played a game in which a planned accidental "malfunction" of the experiment led to greater rewards.

Here's how Gopnik explained the study:

"We gave the crows and 2-year-old children a problem to solve. For the crows, we balanced a sort of domino with meat on top in a hole in a machine. When they went to eat the meat, they accidentally tipped the domino over into the machine. Unexpectedly, that made the machine dispense even more meat from a separate opening. (We used marbles instead of meat for the children.)"

Would the crows and toddlers figure out the trick and then use it to their advantage?

Only the toddlers got it, as Gopnik wrote:

"Despite their tool-using brilliance, the crows never got it—even after a hundred trials. They could learn to pick up the block and put it into the box through conditioning—that is, if they were rewarded for each step of the process—but not spontaneously. In contrast, most of the 2-year-olds learned from the accident. They could imagine how to get the marble, and could immediately pick up the block and put it in the box."

Read more about the study in Gopnik's Wall Street Journal article.  

A few months ago, the researchers published a different study on causal learning that showed that toddlers can make sense of imperfect cause-and-effect relationships just by watching someone else play a game. The findings suggest that toddlers have an intuitive sense of the mathematical concept probability. Read more about the study and watch a video of Waismeyer demonstrating the experiment online.