Irrational decision-making in an amoeboid organism: transitivity and context-dependent preferences
Most models of animal foraging and consumer choice assume that individuals make choices based on the absolute value of items and are therefore ‘economically rational’. However, frequent violations of rationality by animals, including humans, suggest that animals use comparative valuation rules. Are comparative valuation strategies a consequence of the way brains process information, or are they an intrinsic feature of biological decision-making? Here, we examine the principles of rationality in an organism with radically different information-processing mechanisms: the brainless, unicellular, slime mould Physarum polycephalum. We offered P. polycephalum amoebas a choice between food options that varied in food quality and light exposure (P. polycephalum is photophobic). The use of an absolute valuation rule will lead to two properties: transitivity and independence of irrelevant alternatives (IIA). Transitivity is satisfied if preferences have a consistent, linear ordering, while IIA states that a decision maker's preference for an item should not change if the choice set is expanded. A violation of either of these principles suggests the use of comparative rather than absolute valuation rules. Physarum polycephalum satisfied transitivity by having linear preference rankings. However, P. polycephalum's preference for a focal alternative increased when a third, inferior quality option was added to the choice set, thus violating IIA and suggesting the use of a comparative valuation process. The discovery of comparative valuation rules in a unicellular organism suggests that comparative valuation rules are ubiquitous, if not universal, among biological decision makers.