Aesop's fable experiment highlights how differently children and crows learn about the world
Thursday 26 July 2012
An experiment based on an Aesop's fable has shown how differently children and crows learn about the world.
In the story, a thirsty crow drops pebbles into a pitcher of water. Eventually the water levels rises high enough for the crow to drink.
Studies have shown that crows really do understand Archimedes's principle. Faced with a food reward floating out of reach in a flask, they will select weighty objects over light ones to displace the water and bring the food within reach.
In the new study, scientists compared the ability of human children and jays - a type of crow - to perform similar tasks.
The experiments involved displacing water in tubes to obtain prizes or food rewards.
From age five to seven the children were no better than the jays, completing the tasks after about five tries. From eight years old onwards, they succeeded with their first try.
However, there was one task that consistently defeated the crows, though not their human rivals.
A water-filled U-shaped tube was buried so that its two open ends looked like two separate tubes, one of which was too narrow to drop objects into. This tube also contained the reward.
Children were not fazed by the fact that they were doing something apparently impossible - making the level of water in one tube rise by dropping an object into a different tube.
But the jays could not handle the conundrum and failed at the task.
The results, published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE, show that children and crows go about problem solving in a different way, scientists said.
While the jays had to make sense of the task mechanism during their trial and error attempts, children were more driven by simple cause and effect.
Study leader Lucy Cheke, from Cambridge University, said: "This makes sense because it is children's job to learn about new cause and effect relationships without being limited by ideas of what is or is not possible.
"The children were able to learn what to do to get the reward even if the chain-of-events was apparently impossible.
"Essentially, they were able to ignore the fact that it shouldn't be happening to concentrate on the fact that it was happening.
"The birds however, found it much harder to learn what was happening because they were put off by the fact that it shouldn't be happening.
"The Aesop's fable paradigm provides an incredibly useful means by which to compare cause-effect learning with understanding of underlying mechanisms, ie folk physics.
"We are planning on extending this paradigm to really try to understand what's going on in the heads of adults, children and animals when they deal with problems in the physical world."
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