We all know the feeling of liking something more just because we worked hard for it. Now researchers at the University of Regensburg have discovered that ants, like us, also overvalue things they had to work hard for. The fact that ants, like us, show such apparently irrational preferences suggests that ants and humans have many similarities in how they form preferences. Studying ants might be a good way to understand why humans like the things they do.
We normally consider hard work to be a bad thing – that is why we usually demand to be paid for going to work. This makes it hard to understand some human behaviours, such as hiking up a mountain for fun. However, as any hiker knows, the beer you drink after a hard hike tastes much better than after a light stroll.
To test whether the same is true for ants, Dr. Tomer Czaczkes, member of the chair of zoology and evolutionary biology, and colleagues let ants go for a hike or a stroll, and gave them a drink at the end. For a hard hike, the ants had to walk up a vertical runway, and found lemon flavoured syrup at the end. For an easy stroll, they had the same path, but horizontal, and with a rosemary flavoured treat. After visiting both paths several times, the ants were offered paths scented with rosemary or lemon. Most of the ants preferred the lemon path. Also, when returning from a hard-work treat, ants were more likely to advertise this food to their sisters.
“Of course, we switched the flavours around as well” explains Birgit Brandstetter, student at the chair of zoology and evolutionary biology who led the study. “The results are the same – the ants simply prefer any flavour which they had to work harder for.” Even if the ants are made to work hard by walking over a rough surface, the results are the same.
But why would ants, or humans for that matter, prefer hard work? It seems to be all to do with how you feel just before you get your drink. If you are tired or annoyed, and then get a nice drink and feel better, this feels like a much bigger improvement than if you were already feeling good to begin with.
It seems that, in many ways, ants and humans are more similar in their psychology than you might expect.
The results are reported in the latest issue of the Journal of Comparative Psychology (DOI: 10.1037/com0000109).
Dr. Tomer Czaczkes
Am Lehrstuhl für Zoologie/Evolutionsbiologie
Tel.: 0941 943-2996
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