Of Dogs, Men and Crows

About one year ago we set out with a definition of innovation that is making information valuable and with an aim to explore innovation using the physical and biological sciences to add to the understanding of innovation as a social and economic activity.

In the previous posting Valoris Cognita Barcelona this journey led to sketching out of some principles whereby the information content of an innovation might manifest itself in the neural circuitry of the brains of consumers, who might then perceive an associated value.

Unfortunately, consumer brains like all models produce approximations of the real world. There can be no absolute reality in this subjective world, just opinions held to varying degrees of conviction depending on how sensory information fits to the cerebral model an individual consumer uses to understand the world in which he lives.  Furthermore, this cerebral modelling is not a uniquely human capability but is shared with other organisms.

Here we will start a catalogue of examples of other species for which information may be considered valuable.

The classical example of the perception of value associated with information is in the classical conditioning of animal behaviour discovered by Ivan Pavlov in the early years of the 20th century.  Famously, saliva secretion in dogs which normally occurs when they find food can be generated by other stimuli, such as the ringing of a bell, which through repetitive association the dog has learned to indicate the arrival of food.

One might interpret this conditioned response of the dog as valuing the information communicated by the ringing bell as it might value the arrival of the food itself.

Whilst alternative unconditioned responses, that are innate and naturally occurring, appear to be hardwired in deeper and more primitive parts of the brain, learned conditioned responses arise in the cerebral context that is responsible for higher order intelligent behaviour.  The initial neural correlations with the perception of value can thus be identified.


Since the discovery of the physiological basis of classical conditioning there has been widespread application of the concept in marketing and advertising[1].  It is unsurprising to consider that the learned response of Pavlov’s dogs to the various stimuli that provoked their salivation can be associated with the desires of consumers in shopping centres as they encounter the brands that line the shelves therein.  In this case the brand communicates the necessary information for a receptive consumer to perceived value in the associated product.

Wormhole:        Consumer Behaviour: There is a great deal to learn from other fields especially when it comes to consumer motivation and behaviour.


A more recent study of a quite different aspect of animal behaviour, that is to do with the reaction to inequality in the treatment of individuals, also indicates a perception of value in species that enjoy a complex social behaviour.

In 2013, Claudia Wascher and Thomas Bugnyar [2] reported on the behaviour of pairs of crows where one individual is rewarded preferentially in relation to a second.  The birds had learned to associate a token exchange with their reward with food.  The study of Wascher and Bugnyar revealed that the bird’s behaviour depended on the inequality the researchers introduced into the reward system:-

Crow 1

A view from the office window.  Crows and ravens have cognitive abilities similar to primates, especially in their social interactions, in various forms of cooperation and problem solving and with a high selectivity in partner choice and in coalition and alliance formation.

*   If only one bird of a pair was rewarded with food for the same exchange task, this diminished their willingness to participate in the token exchange[3].

*   If one bird received lesser quality food for the same exchange task, this also diminished willingness to participate in the token exchange.

*   A bird receiving lesser quality food for the same exchange task may even choose not to accept their reward, even though they had already paid the cost in the token exchange.

*   If one bird was given food as a gift whilst a second had to “work” for the food through a token exchange, then this also reduced their willingness to participate in the token exchange.

*   Different individuals respond differently to inequity in complex ways, making the above findings apparent in the statistics of the population rather than appearing in the individuals on every occasion.

This response to inequality is interesting in itself as it mirrors human preference for fairness in reward distribution, where even a person receiving a disproportionately higher reward can be dissatisfied by an unequal distribution.  Whilst primates also behave in a similar manner, the inequality response in dogs is determined solely by the presence or absence of the reward and not its quality.  Fish on the other hand appear completely insensitive to inequality.

Crows have a complex social behaviour and accordingly their behavioural response to inequality is highly sensitive.  Furthermore, for this reaction to occur, these birds must show attributes that are particularly relevant to the current discussion on value perception.  This sensitivity to inequality requires the birds to have:-

  • An inherent perception of the relative value of different items upon which their response to inequality is determined.
  • An inherent perception that the cost (in terms of token exchange) needs to be equivalent for the same reward as recognised in the received food.
  • A perception that the value of a reward is inherently related to the work required to acquire it.

So it seems that the Value Surface concept and even a Labour Theory of Value have behavioural roots that may have arisen independently in species of mammals and birds that share complex social interactions within their communities[4].

Smith, Ricardo and Marx could recognise their classical articulation of economic motivation in this fascinating insight into animal behaviour that appears to be associated with the co-operative tendencies of the species concerned.  All three repeatedly emphasised that such economic behaviour emerges through social interaction, and so it seems.  However, it also appears that social relationships can condition the associated neural responses in individuals.

It is therefore significant to note that perceptions of value, whilst they must originate through cognition and brain function, are fundamentally associated with a society and the complex social relationships that exist therein.  There is such a thing as society.  Furthermore, Sale Events are dependent on more than a simple individual comparison of cost and benefit.  Environmental factors within the society play a role, one of which is the fairness and equality that underpin the transactional behaviour.



[1] Limbad, Shaileshkumar J.  “The Application of Classical Conditioning Theory in Advertisements” International Journal of Marketing and Technology3.4 (Apr 2013): 197-207.

[2] Wascher CAF, Bugnyar T (2013)  Behavioral Responses to Inequity in Reward Distribution and Working Effort in Crows and Ravens. PLoS ONE 8(2): e56885. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0056885

[3] The willingness to participate in the token exchange is referred to as “exchange performance” and is the likelihood a token exchange will occur.  Crows like humans are varied in their responses to stimuli as is recognised in the Value Surface concept.

[4] This explanation seems more plausible than the alternative that these behavioural traits arose when birds and mammals had a common ancestry, that was around 320 million years ago.

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