Decision-Making Parallels Between Humans And Animals

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Sep 13, 2016

Drawing parallels between human and animal decision-making

People are always choosing between many complex choices throughout their daily lives. Which bank should I open an account under? Should I walk or drive to work? Do I want to cook dinner or just order a pizza? To make these decisions, people often balance the advantages and disadvantages for each choice. This can be done explicitly, by making an actual list of pros and cons, or implicitly, when a person ‘follows their gut’ and chooses without thinking.

However, humans are not the only animals that make decisions. From the proud lion prowling the African savannah to the graceful house cat of a New York apartment, all animals must make decisions throughout their lives. So how do other animals make choices, and is their decision-making process anything like that of humans? Over the past 50 years, behavior analysts have been studying animals in the lab to try and answer these very questions.

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Examining how animals make decisions

By studying the behavior of non-human animals in operant chambers, or ‘Skinner boxes’ as they’re colloquially called, scientists have been able to carefully examine the ways that animals make decisions.

It goes like this: the animal (often a rat or a pigeon) is put into the chamber and given a choice between two alternatives. Over time, the animal learns that choosing alternative A gives them X amount of food and alternative B gives them Y amount of food. By changing the amount of food each alternative gives the animal, the scientist is able to alter the choices of the animal. From the animal’s perspective, it seems like they are learning to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. For example, alternative A may give twice as much food as alternative B, but the quality of the food may be worse (cheap buffet vs fine dining).

The “matching law” in animal decision-making

By using the method described above, behavior analysts have studied decision-making in such a careful manner that they have even been able to develop a simple mathematical equation that can predict the choices of animals almost perfectly! The equation is called the “matching law” because their decisions have been found to match the combined advantages and disadvantages of their choices.

This equation is able to account for all of the different ways scientists have come up with for changing the qualities of the two choices (and scientists can get pretty creative when it comes to their research). This includes amount of food, quality of food, delay to food, and much more.

Can we extend the “matching law” to human decision-making?

While the matching law has been shown to predict the decisions of animals, it’s reasonable to question whether it is also able to account for the choices people make every day. Further research, both experimental and archival, has found that the matching law does, in fact, describe human decision-making accurately!

Research in this area is abundant, with examples as simple as choosing between varieties of snacks to more complex decision-making in sports. Children tend to work on class assignments harder and longer when they receive preferred treats as rewards. College students will pay more attention during class discussions when conversing with someone who makes frequent statements of agreement with them.

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In the realm of sports, the proportion of 2- vs 3-point shots attempted by college and NBA basketball players matches the success rates of those shots. Additionally, college football coaches call for rushing and passing plays according to the average yards gained by those calls. In those instances, and many others, the matching law was able to accurately describe the decisions of people.

Final thoughts on decision-making parallels between humans and animals

Humans and animals are continually making choices throughout their lives, and these choices are often made in chaotic and dynamic environments. However, behavior analytic research can take place in a tightly-controlled laboratory environment with animals making relatively simpler decisions. Even with the potential limitations of animal research, studies have shown that the decision-making process of animals is very similar to that of humans. Over time, all animals (humans and non-humans alike) weigh the advantages and disadvantages of their choices and behave accordingly.  While human social situations are definitely more complicated, scientists will pursue more research on this important topic and continue to find similarities between human and animal decision-making.


Baum, W. M. (1974). On two types of deviation from the matching law: Bias and undermatching. Journal Of The Experimental Analysis Of Behavior, 22(1), 231-242. doi:10.1901/jeab.1974.22-231

Borrero, J. C., Crisolo, S. S., Tu, Q., Rieland, W. A., Ross, N. A., Francisco, M. T., & Yamamoto, K. Y. (2007). An application of the matching law to social dynamics. Journal Of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40(4), 589-601. doi:10.1901/jaba.2007.589-601

Reed, D. D., Critchfield, T. S., & Martens, B. K. (2006). The generalized matching law in elite sport competition: Football play calling as operant choice. Journal Of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39(3), 281-297. doi:10.1901/jaba.2006.146-05

Romanowich, P., Bourret, J., & Vollmer, T. R. (2007). Further analysis of the matching law to describe two- and three-point shot allocation by professional basketball players. Journal Of Applied Behavior Analysis, 40(2), 311-315. doi:10.1901/jaba.2007.119-05

About the Author

Daniel Bell-Garrison

Daniel Bell-Garrison

West Virginia University

Daniel has a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and Philosophy, and recently earned his Master’s degree in Psychology. He is currently a PhD candidate at West Virginia University studying choice and timing of non-human animals.

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