Parrot Beats Harvard Students in Shell Game

Updated: Jun 7



Harvard and the Johns Hopkins University recently published a paper on the results of the cognitive ability of an African grey parrot named Griffin on how well he can remember different colored pompoms (balls) hidden under cups when shuffled (Shell game). The authors of the study are Hrag Pailian, Susan E. Carey, Justin Halberda & Irene M. Pepperberg. Griffin belongs to Dr. Irene Pepperberg at the Alex Foundation (alexfoundation.org). The title of the scientific paper is, " Age and Species Comparisons of Visual Mental Manipulation Ability as Evidence for its Development and Evolution," in Scientific Reports on May 6, 2020. The summary of the study is below.


Adults, children and Griffin played the Shell Game where 2 – 4 shells (upside cups) that hid different colored pompoms (balls) that were shuffled (swapped pairs) and asked where was a particular colored ball.  During the test (trial), the participant did not know what colored ball that the person was going to ask and find before you shuffled the cups so the participant had to track mentally all colored balls during the shuffle.

Griffin outperformed the 6 – 8 year old children for ALL trails, which are 2 – 4 upside down cups that were swapped in pairs up to 3 times.  Children were not tested on 4 swaps because Griffin was expected to outperform the children since he did on all previous tests that were easier.  

In the case of adults, who are NOT high school drop outs but Harvard College students, Griffin performed the same when the test was conducted with 2 and 3 cups that were swapped up to 4 times in pairs.  In one trial of 4 hidden cups swapped one time, Griffin beat the Harvard students by getting 100% all correct.  The students got it right about 90% according to Figure 2 in the paper.

However, when Griffin competed with the Harvard students with 4 cups that were swapped 4 times, students outperformed Griffin.  Noting that Griffin was competing against several students by himself, he was given an 11 month break.  Maybe he was tired or just tired of eating cashews.  Instead of repeating the exact test conditions, the test was modified to determine if the number of times the predetermined chosen cup had an effect on his memory.  When the chosen item was not moved but the others were swapped 4 times, Griffin chose the correct hidden ball 75% of the time when asked, which is about the same as the students according to Figure 2.  Please note that in the previous tests, the cups were swapped at random.  However, Griffin’s accuracy decreased proportionally as the number of times the chosen cup was swapped.  More studies are being planned. Go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91PlNoELI6I to see the video and presentation and to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmTqYzOiL_4 if you like to see an aerial view of Griffin participating in the Shell game.

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