Birds in the crow family can figure out how to extract a treat from a half-empty glass surprisingly well, and young children show similar patterns of behavior until they reach about eight years old, at which point their performance surpasses that of the birds. The full report is published July 25 in the open access journal PLoS ONE.
In the current study, led by Nicola Clayton of the University of Cambridge, researchers used a version of the riddle commonly referred to as "Aesop's fable" to test associative learning and problem-solving ability. In previous work, the researchers presented the birds with a partially filled glass of water, with a worm floating just out of reach. The birds were also offered different tools, like rocks or Styrofoam blocks, and were able to figure out which items, when dropped into the glass, would cause the water level to rise so that they could reach the treat.
In the current paper, the researchers tested the ability of children between the ages of four and ten on a similar task: retrieving a floating token in a number of different scenarios. The researchers found that children between the ages of five and seven performed consistently with the birds; both learned how to accomplish the task after about 5 trials. Children eight years and older succeeded in all tasks on their first try.
According to Lucy Cheke, first author of the publication, the main purpose of the study was to see whether birds and children learn in the same way. She says that, based on the results, it seems they don't: the birds were unable to learn when something apparently impossible happened, while children were able to learn about what was happening even if they had no idea how it was happening. "It is children's job to learn about the world," Cheke says, "and they can't do that when they are limited by a preconceived idea about what is or is not possible. For a child, if it works, it works."
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