Focus on Faculty: Wally Herbranson, Ladley Chair of Cognitive Science, Associate Professor of Psychology

Wally Herbranson

Are pigeons smarter than Whitman students? When it comes to Monty Hall’s famous television game show “Let’s Make A Deal,” the Iowa-raised pigeons that psychology professor Wally Herbranson receives via FedEx peck their way to prizes more frequently than humans.

By Edward Weinman

Whitman Magazine: What is comparative psychology?
Wally Herbranson: It’s an approach to psychology that looks at the behavior and mental life of different species, which can tell us how specific abilities and behavioral traits have evolved over time.

Different species? You’re talking about the 16 pigeons in your research lab. What can these birds tell us about human behavior?
I’m interested in probability learning. They way we’re able to make educated guesses about what’s likely to happen. I find that interesting, because sometimes we are really bad at it.

When are we really bad at it?
The classic example is the Monty Hall dilemma based on the old game show “Let’s Make a Deal.” You have three doors. Behind one is a new car; mangy goats behind the other two. So you pick a door. Monty Hall shows you that there’s a goat behind one of the doors you didn’t pick. Then he gives you the chance to change your pick to the other door. Most people have a tendency to stick with their initial choice. But you double your chances of winning if you switch.

You’re talking about probability and statistics, right?
Intuition tells us that it shouldn’t matter. Two doors left and one prize. But the likelihood that you picked the car the first time is one in three. Staying would win one third of the time. But the odds that you picked a goat on the first chance are two in three. You’ve seen one goat and the other is behind your chosen door, so two thirds of the time, you will win by switching doors. Humans generally stay with their initial pick and don’t learn to switch even after losing repeatedly.

And the pigeons, how do these birds fit into the mix?
I ran a version with my pigeons, and they blew the doors off of it. They learned by trial and error to change their pick to win the grain. They beat Whitman college students at the Monty Hall dilemma.

What does that say about pigeons and Whitman students?
It says that pigeons are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. And it says there are imperfections in human cognition.

Speaking of human cognition, tell me what everyone should know about his or her brain.
Well, for starters it’s not perfect, and it will make mistakes. It thrives on sleep, which is especially good for college students to know, because they have pressures to not sleep enough.

Your website reveals that you really like baseball, dogs, sad music and spicy food. Can you be more specific?
I like the Minnesota Twins, because I grew up in Minnesota. It’s been a rough couple of years. Dogs, well, I have a black lab-mutt at home that is perfectly wonderful, but all dogs are good. Sad music, I’m a big fan of Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” album. Spicy food, I’m a big soup guy, so I like spicy soups.

What do you like about teaching at Whitman?
The students. You can challenge them and they don’t complain – well, they complain a little bit, but they always do the work.