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Are the more flexible great-tailed grackles also better at behavioral inhibition?
Great-tailed grackle research reveals need for researchers to consider their own flexibility and test limitations in cognitive test batteries.
In the article, "Are the more flexible great-tailed grackles also better at behavioral inhibition?", Logan and colleagues (2021) are setting an excellent standard for cognitive research on wild-caught animals. Using a decent sample (N=18) of wild-caught birds, they set out to test the ambiguous link between behavioral flexibility and behavioral inhibition, which is supported by some studies but rejected by others. Where this study is more thorough and therefore also more revealing than most extant research, the authors ran a battery of tests, examining both flexibility (reversal learning and solution switching) and inhibition (go/no go task; detour task; delay of gratification) through multiple different test series. They also -- somewhat accidentally -- performed their experiments and analyses with and without different criteria for correctness (85%, 100%). Their mistakes, assumptions and amendments of plans made during preregistration are clearly stated and this demonstrates the thought-process of the researchers very clearly.
Logan et al. (2021) show that inhibition in great-tailed grackles is a multi-faceted construct, and demonstrate that the traditional go/no go task likely tests a very different aspect of inhibition than the detour task, which was never linked to any of their flexibility measures. Their comprehensive Bayesian analyses held up the results of some of the frequentist statistics, indicating a consistent relationship between flexibility and inhibition, with more flexible individuals also showing better inhibition (in the go/no go task). This same model, combined with inconsistencies in the GLM analyses (depending on the inclusion or exclusion of an outlier), led them to recommend caution in the creation of arbitrary thresholds for "success" in any cognitive tasks. Their accidental longer-term data collection also hinted at patterns of behaviour that shorter-term data collection did not. Of course, researchers have to decide on success criteria in order to conduct experiments, but in the same way that frequentist statistics are acknowledged to have flaws, the setting of success criteria must be acknowledged as inherently arbitrary. Where possible, researchers could reveal novel, biologically salient patterns by continuing beyond the point where a convenient success criterion has been reached. This research also underscores that tests may not be examining the features we expected them to measure, and are highly sensitive to biological and ecological variation between species as well as individual variation within populations.
To me, this study is an excellent argument for pre-registration of research (registered as Logan et al. 2019 and accepted by Vogel 2019), as the authors did not end up cherry-picking only those results or methods that worked. The fact that some of the tests did not "work", but was still examined, added much value to the study. The current paper is a bit densely written because of the comprehensiveness of the research. Some editorial polishing would likely make for more elegant writing. However, the arguments are clear, the results novel, and the questions thoroughly examined. The results are important not only for cognitive research on birds, but are potentially valuable to any cognitive scientist. I recommend this article as excellent food for thought.
Logan CJ, McCune K, Johnson-Ulrich Z, Bergeron L, Seitz B, Blaisdell AP, Wascher CAF. (2019) Are the more flexible individuals also better at inhibition? http://corinalogan.com/Preregistrations/g_inhibition.html In principle acceptance by PCI Ecology of the version on 6 Mar 2019
Logan CJ, McCune KB, MacPherson M, Johnson-Ulrich Z, Rowney C, Seitz B, Blaisdell AP, Deffner D, Wascher CAF (2021) Are the more flexible great-tailed grackles also better at behavioral inhibition? PsyArXiv, ver. 7 peer-reviewed and recommended by Peer community in Ecology. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/vpc39
Vogel E (2019) Adapting to a changing environment: advancing our understanding of the mechanisms that lead to behavioral flexibility. Peer Community in Ecology, 100016. https://doi.org/10.24072/pci.ecology.100016