Graduation Year


Date of Thesis Acceptance

Spring 5-10-2017

Major Department or Program



Walter Herbranson


Optimal stopping theory is a mathematical theorem concerned with selecting the optimal choice when presented with a series of options. Stemming from mathematical derivations, this theorem puts forth a set of guidelines intended to maximize rewards and mitigate loss. The Secretary Problem is one example to which optimal stopping theory can be applied. This basic procedure involves a decision-maker viewing a finite list of randomized candidates with the goal of selecting the best one. The decision-maker is permitted to view only one candidate at a time and can either select or reject a candidate on the spot; each decision is final. Many studies have shown that humans perform suboptimally at this task, usually by selecting a candidate too early. Previous research has shown that animals sometimes outperform humans on other probability-based tasks, and act in ways that maximize their potential gains. This exploratory study investigated pigeons’ (Columba livia) performance on a multi-trial variation of the Secretary Problem task. Success within a trial was measured by whether or not the pigeon followed the solution laid out by optimal stopping theory. Results indicate that, similarly to humans, pigeons perform suboptimally by stopping too early. Through the analysis of the Secretary Problem, this study provided additional context for interpreting suboptimal performance in both humans and nonhuman animals.

Keywords: pigeon, the secretary problem, optimal stopping theory, optimal foraging theory

Page Count


Subject Headings

Pigeons -- Behavior, Decision making, Secretary problem (Probability theory) -- Optimal Stopping theory, Optimal theory (Linguistics) -- Optimal foraging theory, Human cognitive processing -- Cross-species comparison, Social sciences, Whitman College -- Dissertation collection 2017 -- Psychology Department

Permanent URL

Document Type

Public Accessible Thesis

Included in

Psychology Commons



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