Traditional economic theories assume decision makers in multialternative choice tasks “assign” a value to each option and then express rational preferences. Here, I report an apparent violation of such rationality in gray jays (Perisoreus canadensis). I tested the jays’ preference in a quaternary choice task where three options were the same color and the fourth option was a different color. All options offered an identical food reward and so the strictly rational expectation was that subjects would choose the odd-colored option in 25% of choices. In clear disagreement, every subject chose the odd option more frequently than expected. I speculate as to how this surprising preference for oddity might have been ecologically rational: by using a unique-choice heuristic, the jays might have been able to bypass a deliberative phase of the decision process and devote more attention to scanning for predators. Alternatively, it is conceivable that the jays did not prefer oddity per se. Instead, they might have used a hierarchical process, assigning options to color categories and then choosing between categories. If so, their behavior matches expectation after all (on average, subjects chose the odd option 50% of the time). It should be straightforward to test these competing hypotheses. The current results can be viewed as a new example of how simple mechanisms sometimes produce economically puzzling yet ecologically rational decision making.
Financed by the National Centre for Research and Development under grant No. SP/I/1/77065/10 by the strategic scientific research and experimental development program:
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