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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 06-Jan-13


Sunday 06-January-13

Doggy game theory

Game theory is an interesting branch of psychology and behavior where two people are typically each given two choices and have two work out which to take.

The classic experiment is the 'Prisoner's Dilemma' where both participants are told they are suspects being interviewed the police for a crime. It is known that they both did it, and if they both stay silent (case A), they will each get 2 years in prison. However, if only one talks (case B), this person will get 1 year and the other gets 4 years. This is quite a worrying thought for them, so in many tests, both will choose to talk (case C), in which case each gets 3 years. If you look at the total prison time served, A is best at 4 years, then B at 5 years. C is the worst, at 6 years, yet many people choose this. The reason is very human: we guess at what others are thinking and suspect deceit, then choose to reduce our possible disadvantage rather than increase joint benefit.

Recently, I was musing on this while eating a biscuit. Our two golden retrievers were doing their 'scrounging at a distance' (they know the limits) and I was wondering how dogs would get on with a game-theory situation. They don't have theory of mind (thinking about what others are thinking) and yet they are highly food oriented, so I came up with the following test.

Often, I'll give the dogs the last bit of biscuit, which I hold out for them. They are often a bit hesitant as they know they must be invited, but at last one or the other will overcome this and cautiously come forward for the food. At this, the other knows that there is always another bit of biscuit for them. We are always fair about this. So the test is as follows:

  • Hold out a small bit of biscuit.
  • Let either dog come and get it.
  • Then hold out a big bit of biscuit.
  • The second dog then knows that this is for her, so takes it.

The question now is whether the dogs get the pattern and both want to go second and so hold back. But if they both hold back, neither get any food. Interesting, huh?

I tried it a number of times, and there was a bit of delay as they looked from piece to piece (both were on display - they're not that good at thinking of out-of-sight imagining). But neither really figured the game. Both would still give in to the temptation for the small bit, even though the other got the big bit.

I wonder how cats would approach this.

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