Dr Melissa Bateson and colleagues at Newcastle University have been doing some fascinating work on how a starling’s environment is reflected in its outlook, the New Scientist reports (28th April 2007).

It turns out that the “richer” the bird’s environment, the more “optimistic” its behaviour is.

The birds were trained to associate a tasty snack (a nice worm) with a white-lidded dish, and an unpleasant-flavoured mouthful (a bitter worm) with a dark grey-lidded dish. The birds soon learnt not to bother looking under the dark grey lids.

Then, the birds were put into either standard cages (small and bare) or enriched ones (bigger, with branches and bird baths).

Next, the birds were given ambiguously-coloured dishes, with lids in shades of grey. Only those birds in the enriched cages bothered turning over the lids. In other words, the starlings in the enriched cages were more “optimistic”, while those in the standard cages were “pessimistic”. Similar results have been found in experiments with rats at the University of Bristol, and it’s easy to extrapolate to human behaviour.

Bateson says: “If you have information coming in that the environment is a bad place, then it makes sense to make adaptive changes to the way you process information”. This seems to be why our reaction times tend to slow down when we are anxious, or we are more likely to interpret an ambiguous shadow as a spider, offers the New Scientist.

This begs some questions. Are there psychological tricks or other means to overcome the impact of inhabiting a less than adequate environment? If not, for those of us occupying a standard cage, is our goose cooked?

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