Research

My research interests primarily lie within the realm of animal decision making, specifically in regards to foraging and food hoarding behavior. The cognitive and behavioral adaptations that guide such behaviors provide a particularly interesting avenue of research. Every day that an animal begins a foraging bout, they are presented with new challenges. They must assess predator risk, competitor presence, weather conditions, resource conditions, and many other environmental variables. Questions arise regarding how these animals handle such variability and what guides their future patch choice behavior. To date, my research has focused on the behavioral patterns and cognitive decisions made by species of chipmunks and gerbils. These animals are known for their foraging and food hoarding behaviors, and some have already been shown to be quite adept at engaging in such. These behaviors include simple mechanisms that reduce cache loss, while others appeal more toward the cognitive fallacy literature. In fact, many behaviors that can be identified at the non-human level may provide a more coherent rationale for the cognitive errors that we attribute to humans. It may be possible to identify evolutionary mechanisms and behaviors that have led to the development of seemingly "irrational" decision making.

Recently, my research has begun to attend to these issues of rationality. Endowment effects, sunk costs, and other biases are commonly identified in the human literature. However, little work has been done with non-human decision makers. To me, it has always seemed that given the correct evolutionary context, these effects may prove to be rational. Identifying these effects in animals may allow for a better understanding of how they originated and whether or not they are truly irrational. Currently, I am conducting studies on the work ethic effect. Researchers in both the human and non-human literature have suggested that individuals prefer resources and stimuli that have been previously associated with work or effort. When researchers have paired identical resources at choice, one associated with a stimulus tied to work and one associated with a stimulus tied to non-work, subjects consistently prefer the work-associated resource. Arguments can be made for maintaining either preference (work or non-work), but the simplest argument is that the rewards are now equal and choice should occur at a 50:50 ratio. Despite a number of studies assessing these effects, the results have been very mixed. Moreover, these researchers have only studied the behaviors in a laboratory paradigm. My research is focusing on this issue and reassessing these effects using a more naturalistic design.