The sunk cost effect in pigeon behaviour.

The sunk cost effect in pigeon behaviour.

Eva and Jason had just finished a long morning trading in stocks in Canary Wharf. Every day at lunch time they liked to like to get out of the grey, poorly lit office and eat their lunch outside in Jubilee Park. They always sat on the same patch of grass and watched the pigeons and people pass by. As they ate Eva noticed that one of the pigeons tended to stick to the same area of the park, pecking around and looking for food rather than move to another area of the park where more people were sat around enjoying their lunches. Eva mentioned the pigeon to Jason and they both wondered why the pigeon would not move to the area of the park with more food.

In humans when an individual is given the choice between two or more investment decisions people often stick with the investment they are already involved in rather than moving to a new investment (Novemsky & Kahneman, 2005). The initial investment of resources (money, time, energy etc) make switching investments less likely even if the new investment could produce a better outcome than the original investment – psychologists call this tendency to stick with the original investment the sunk cost effect (or bias) (Avila et al., 2010). One explanation of the sunk cost effect is that people have strong misgivings about wasting resources, a disposition that economists call loss aversion (Novemsky & Kahneman, 2005).

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Like humans, other animals (other than humans) often show the same decision behaviours. Several studies have investigated the sunk cost effect in pigeons (for a review see White & Magalhaes, 2015). In one study by Pattison and colleagues (2012) at the University of Kentucky researchers examined decision behaviour in pigeons (Columba livia). The pigeons were trained to peck at coloured keys with a potential reward (food). The pigeons could make a choice between pecking at one key for 30 pecks with a potential reward (e.g., a red key) or switching to another key (e.g., a green key) with a potential reward after 10 or 20 pecks. The pigeons showed a bias towards continuing with the sequence of pecks that they had invested in rather than switching to peck on another key that would produce a reward after fewer pecks. These results show that pigeons, like humans, show a bias to stay with an initial investment.

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A second study investigating decision behaviour in pigeons used a slightly different method to Pattison and colleagues (Watanabe, 2009). The pigeons in this study still had the same choice of sticking with an initial investment (in pecks) or switching. After training the pigeons to peck 30 times at one colour for food and 10 times to another colour for food Watanabe gave the pigeons the choice of switching to the 10-peck option after they had already started the 30-peck option. The experimenters found that three of the four pigeons showed a preference for completing the initial investment, despite the fact that switching to the second option would need pecks overall. So, like humans the pigeons in this second study were also susceptible to the sunk cost effect. Although these results are interesting the resources conceded that there may be one alternative explanation for the behaviour pigeons – switching to the new alternative would require the pigeon to move to the new colour.

Therefore, although most people would like to think that we do not act in the same way as other animals some of our behaviour is not uniquely human. Next time you find yourself sat on a patch of grass like Eva and Jason enjoying your lunch whilst watching the local wildlife and wondering why that pigeon is acting so strangely simple think “what would I be doing if I were that pigeon?” Afterall, the pigeon stubbornly sticking to its little patch of the park is not too unlike the way that our investment bankers and stock brokers behave.


The framing effect on climate change communication and policy making.

The framing effect on climate change communication and policy making.

Hannah and Thomas had both recently become interested in the environment and the politics of climate change after seeing a few news articles on the topic. Last week Hannah watched a very convincing documentary by a leading politician about the dangers of climate change and how humans are contributing to it. Thomas’ father worked in manufacturing and was skeptical about the contributions of humans to the change in environment, his father had always said that humans could not change the environment. Both Hannah and Thomas agreed that although they had different views on climate change there are mixed messages in the press.

Many controversial topics in the media are framed in such a way that benefit the person or company that is responsible for placing the message. The framing effect is one of the major heuristics (short-cuts in decision-making) that is used in the media. Framing works by wording a message in a persuasive way to influence the thinking of the reader (Kuhn, 1997). Communicators can make a choice to present the possible outcomes of a medical interventions as either (a) 80% chance of surviving (i.e., positively framed) or (b) 20% chance of death (i.e., negatively framed). On the topic of climate change communication researchers have found that a negatively framed (highlighting losses) message decreases individual intentions to behave environmentally whilst positively framed messages (highlighting the possibility of losses not materializing) produce a stronger intention to act in a pro-environmental way (Morton et al., 2011).

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One important factor for policy makers is that in the United States the public do not think that climate change is a concern, compared to other policies. Every January the Pew Research Centre for The People and The Press conduct a large poll of the public’s belief in which of 20 policies are of most important.  Between 2007 and 2009 the policy of “dealing with global warming” was consistently ranked at the bottom of 20 priorities (see the table below).

% considering each as a “top priority” January 2007 January 2008 January 2009
Strengthening the nation’s economy 68 75 85
Securing social security 64 64 63
Securing Medicare 63 60 60
Reducing crime 62 54 46
Reducing health care costs 68 69 59
Strengthening the military 46 42 44
Dealing with illegal immigration 55 51 41
Reducing middle class taxes 48 46 43
Dealing with global trade 34 37 31
Dealing with global warming 38 35 30

To aid in breaking through the communication barrier policy makers can tailor their messages to specific audiences by framing their messages. News reporters (e.g., news about an event), policymakers (e.g., employment statistics), advertisers (e.g. vitamin advertisements), and public speakers (e.g., conference talks) already use framing effectively.

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The framing of climate change information has been used successfully by John Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008. In his 2004 election campaign the Democratic party presidential candidate Senator John Kerry made strategic use of the public accountability framing (i.e., we are responsible for our environment). Senator Kerry compared the use of different frames (i.e., denial or acceptance of climate change) to the administrations use of intelligence to invade Iraq. In Obama’s 2008 presidential candidate campaign he made use of a sound bite “creating green jobs and fuelling economic recovery.” Creating green jobs in industry with alternatives to gasoline (or petrol) was heralded as a way to benefit the economy by creating more jobs and as a way to reduce greenhouse emissions. We can see here that Kerry chose to use a public accountability frame whilst Obama used an economic frame – both frames were used towards the same aim but tailored differently. Famously, Gore in his 2008 WE campaign picked a moral frame for climate change communication.

We have seen here that the framing effect can be used effectively by communicators for any message (e.g., advertising, policies etc). On the topic of climate change communication, we can put the framing effect to work by carefully considering how we would like to frame a message to our intended audience. In the cases of Hannah and Thomas they may have both seen the same information presented in different ways (i.e., the frame), the frames that they have encountered helped them come to their own decisions about climate change.