The conventional wisdom is that delayed gratification (that is to say: the ability to hold off on an immediate pleasure) is a predictor of future success. That conclusion came from a famous psych study called “the marshmallow test.”
The Marshmallow Test
If you’re not familiar with the marshmallow test, here’s the story: Researchers gave children a highly desirable treat (like a marshmallow) and said “You can have this piece of candy now. But… if you wait and don’t eat it, then you can have two pieces of candy later.” Some kids chose to eat the candy before the time was up. Others waited in order to get two pieces.
Over time, the researchers found a correlation that showed that kids who were able to exhibit self-control, tended to do better later in life according to some other measures.
This is a very famous study, often cited. However, more recently, the findings have come into question. Turns out (no surprise, really) if you account for other variables, those advantages disappear.
What variables did the original researches forget to account for?
Things like economic security and family stability. So if you have a kid who, for example, sometimes went hungry or never had access to treats, he might find it harder to avoid the temptation of taking the immediate treat. Kids who had the confidence of knowing that they could have treats at any time, might not think it was that big of a deal, and therefore didn’t find it as hard to wait.
Similarly (and this is where I try to get back on topic for this blog), kids who didn’t trust authority figures to keep their word, would be smart to take the candy now.
If you grew up in an environment where you were sometimes told that you would be rewarded if you behaved in a certain way, and then that reward NEVER CAME, it would actually not be the smart choice to deny yourself the immediate satisfaction of having your candy now.
Positive Reinforcement Training
This month, a new test with animals has been making the rounds demonstrating how “smart” parrots were because they could be taught to make certain economic choices: take a “bauble” now instead of a treat, and you can trade the bauble for an even better treat.
It’s a pretty cool experiment.
Of course, people who’ve spent a lot of time training parrots won’t be terribly surprised. Parrots are constantly thinking about (scheming, even) about how they can get what they want.
Check out this video on the NY Times site showing how the experiment works.
Before you rush off to test how smart your pet is compared to these birds, keep in mind that the video skips the initial training period. First, the researchers needed to set a very solid association between the baubles and the treats they represented.
Want to give it a try? First, consider these things:
Have you taught your parrot to believe and trust you when you tell them what a behavior is worth? Do you have a solid history of “We’re going to work on learning something. When you figure out what the behavior is, then you get a reward. You can trust that you will always get the reward if you do the behavior we agreed leads to a reward.”?
Are you sure their understanding is your understanding?
For example, do they know specifically that handing over a metal washer leads to a walnut, or do they just think that handing you something means you’ll give them something else?
How hungry is your pet when you’re asking them to forego the immediate treat? Are you sure you know treat they think is the better one? Maybe the value of treats changes from moment to moment?
Do they trust you to deliver the more-tasty morsel if they forego the okay morsel?
Maybe your bird is trying to trick you and see if they can get away with grabbing both treats?
And, as the NY Times article points out, maybe playing with the toy is a reward in and of itself.
I don’t doubt for a second that the parrots in this video did know exactly what they were doing. But if you’re going to try to train your pets to do something similar, recognize that if they are “failing” the test, it probably has a lot more to do with inadequate training than their intelligence.
Training Parrots: How to Start
If you haven’t trained your birds before and are interested in getting started, I have a couple of posts about clicker training for parrots, common training mistakes, and other resources I like that will help you have fun training your pet parrot. I also encourage you to browse or search the archives!