Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 64, Issue 8, pp 1255–1265 | Cite as

When rate maximization is impulsive

  • Theodore P. Pavlic
  • Kevin M. Passino
Original Paper


Although optimal foraging theory predicts that natural selection should favor animal behaviors that maximize long-term rate of gain, behaviors observed in the laboratory tend to be impulsive. In binary-choice experiments, despite the long-term gain of each alternative, animals favor short handling times. Most explanations of this behavior suggest that there is hidden rationality in impulsiveness. Instead, we suggest that simultaneous and mutually exclusive binary-choice encounters are often unnatural and thus immune to the effects of natural selection. Using a simulation of an imperfect forager, we show how a simple strategy (i.e., an intuitive model of animal behavior) that maximizes long-term rate of gain under natural conditions appears to be impulsive under operant laboratory conditions. We then show how the accuracy of this model can be verified in the laboratory by biasing subjects with a short pre-experiment ad libitum high-quality feeding period. We also show a similar behavioral mechanism results in diet preferences that are qualitatively consistent with the digestive rate model of foraging (i.e., foraging under digestive rate constraints).


Impulsiveness Impulsivity Rationality Self-control Optimal foraging Simultaneous encounters 



We thank Thomas A. Waite for his helpful insights and instruction and Ian M. Hamilton for his comments on and suggestions for this paper. We are also grateful for the comments and suggestions of two anonymous referees. An anonymous reviewer on a related submission also provided helpful comments that influenced the presentation of this work.

Supplementary material

265_2010_940_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (271 kb)
(PDF 271 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Electrical and Computer EngineeringOhio State UniversityColumbusUSA
  2. 2.Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal BiologyOhio State UniversityColumbusUSA

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