When humans switch from one task to another, we incur what’s often called a “switch cost”. A switch cost is a temporary disruption in performance in which the person completes the new task slower and less accurately. An example would be someone who’s been sealing envelopes all day. If they suddenly have to switch to another task, such as sorting the envelopes, their performance will be slower and less accurate for a brief amount of time. This happens even if they were sorting the envelopes just fine yesterday. Interestingly, recent research by psychologists at the University of Exeter suggests that pigeons don’t have this problem.
The researchers trained pigeons to perform basic tasks in which they had to peck at the correct keys in response to specific stimuli on a screen. The pigeons performed consistently, even when asked to rapidly switch between types of tasks. This also meant that they didn’t perform better when asked to repeat the same task over and over, something that’s been shown to happen with humans. The birds overall performed exactly the same no matter the task order.
The researchers believe that part of this is because pigeons aren’t over-analyzing. Pigeons tend to use something called associative learning, a process where they learn a simple association between a stimulus and a behavior. In this case, they learned to associate certain visual cues on the screen with pecking specific keys for food. Every time the pigeons saw the specific stimulus, they repeated the old behavior that had been working for them. In other words, they didn’t think too hard about it, they just did what worked in the past.
This research has important implications for future human behavior studies. It’s possible that humans could get around switch costs by using forms of associative learning, just like the pigeons, when practicing a skill. If we can understand how pigeons manage to switch between tasks so easily, we can improve human efficiency in situations where someone must juggle multiple tasks at once.
Christina Meier et al, Task-Switching in Pigeons: Associative Learning or Executive Control? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition (2016).