Knowing when to take risks and when to hedge your bets is an important survival skill, but interestingly it seems that different species are wired to act differently when faced with risky decisions. According to a new study, wolves are more inclined to gamble when the opportunity presents itself, while dogs tend to go for the safer option.
Published last week in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the paper describes how seven wolves and seven dogs were trained to take part in a gambling task, during which they had to use their paw or muzzle to point at one of two upturned food bowls, indicating which they wanted to be turned over. The animals were taught to understand that the first bowl always contained a bland food pellet, while turning over the second bowl would reveal a tasty cut of meat half the time and an inedible stone the other half of the time.
The first bowl therefore represents the safe bet, as it yielded a guaranteed, if somewhat uninspiring, treat. The second bowl, meanwhile, was by far the riskier option, offering a significant potential gain but also a booby prize.
The four-legged contestants were each asked to choose between the two bowls 80 times, with the wolves picking the risky bowl on 80 percent of these occasions. But the dogs only gambled 58 percent of the time.
Although dogs and wolves are closely related, the researchers believe that this significant difference in their risk-taking tendencies is a product of their contrasting feeding patterns. Wolves, for instance, are hunters, and are therefore used to either capturing their meaty prey or ending up with nothing. On the other hand, free-ranging dogs – which make up 80 percent of the global dog population – are predominantly scavengers that live off scraps provided by humans. As such, they are accustomed to a constant, reliable food source, although they don’t always have much control over what they eat.
The researchers propose that dogs underwent an evolutionary shift shortly after being domesticated by humans between 18,000 and 32,000 years ago, leading to the development of a more cautious temperament. Interestingly, the same rationality is used to explain the fact humans are also naturally risk-averse, as gambling in order to increase the quality or quantity of our food supply is usually detrimental to our survival chances.