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Trust your gut: using physiological states as a source of information is almost as effective as optimal Bayesian learning

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • Andrew D Higginson
  • Tim W Fawcett
  • Alasdair I Houston
  • John M McNamara
Original languageEnglish
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Volume285
Issue number1871
DOIs
DateAccepted/In press - 3 Jan 2018
DatePublished (current) - 31 Jan 2018

Abstract

Approaches to understanding adaptive behaviour often assume that animals have perfect information about environmental conditions or are capable of sophisticated learning. If such learning abilities are costly, however, natural selection will favour simpler mechanisms for controlling behaviour when faced with uncertain conditions. Here, we show that, in a foraging context, a strategy based only on current energy reserves often performs almost as well as a Bayesian learning strategy that integrates all previous experiences to form an optimal estimate of environmental conditions. We find that Bayesian learning gives a strong advantage only if fluctuations in the food supply are very strong and reasonably frequent. The performance of both the Bayesian and the reserve-based strategy are more robust to inaccurate knowledge of the temporal pattern of environmental conditions than a strategy that has perfect knowledge about current conditions. Studies assuming Bayesian learning are often accused of being unrealistic; our results suggest that animals can achieve a similar level of performance to Bayesians using much simpler mechanisms based on their physiological state. More broadly, our work suggests that the ability to use internal states as a source of information about recent environmental conditions will have weakened selection for sophisticated learning and decision-making systems.

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    Rights statement: This is the final published version of the article (version of record). It first appeared online via The Royal Society at https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.2411 . Please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.

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    Licence: CC BY

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