What is it about?

Humans often try to minimize cost when performing an action, such as driving to work or buying prepared food. However, sometimes the opposite occurs, such as feeling proud after biking to the office or cooking dinner; we often attribute this feeling to a “a work ethic”. Interestingly, something similar occurs in animals, but the rationale is not always clear. Formally called contrafreeloading, the nonhuman behavior generally involves choosing to perform work to access food in the presence of free food, and occurs in contradiction to many learning and optimal foraging theories. Our research aimed to discern if variables of task and food type influenced contrafreeloading in the chosen animal subject, Grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). We found that whether subjects contrafreeloaded depended not only on the manipulated variables but also on individual preferences, and theorize that this variation can be explained by whether a given individual considered the task as play rather than work.

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Why is it important?

Contrafreeloading is an interesting phenomenon as it indicates what variables are relevant to individuals performing an energetically or temporally wasteful activity when they could instead be acting optimally to achieve a given goal. But is wasteful always bad? The presence of such activities (e.g., play; exploration) are often used as metrics for positive welfare for nonhumans in captivity, as they occur most often when environmental and social stressors are low. Thus, contrafreeloading is an optimal tool to analyze the well-being of captive animals, not only in general, but as we saw in our study, also on the individual level.


Due to the theorized connection between play and contrafreeloading we are excited to endeavor on a species comparison studying contrafreeloading in the famously playful kea parrots at the University of Auckland.

Gabriella Smith
Hunter College

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Initial evidence for eliciting contrafreeloading in grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) via the opportunity for playful foraging., Journal of Comparative Psychology, November 2021, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/com0000295.
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