Contrafreeloading: What It Is And What It Shows About The Effort


Although food is a basic necessity, many animals value food that is difficult for them to obtain more.

We are going to explore this phenomenon in depth, assessing the possible causes of the so-called counterfreeloading and reviewing some of the studies that support the existence of this curious mechanism in many animal species.

What is counterfreeloading?

The concept of contrafreeloading refers to an animal behavior by which some individuals show a propensity to choose those foods that require a certain effort to obtain to the detriment of others that are at their free disposal without requiring the slightest effort to obtain them.

There is no exact word in Spanish to translate this term, although an approximate translation could be against free supply, and the foundation of this concept is the decision that the animal makes when faced with the dilemma, precisely between direct and free supply, versus another in which they must take an active part to achieve it. In counterfreeloading, the animal chooses the second option.

This It is a concept developed by researcher Glen Jensen, an expert in comparative psychology, the branch that studies the similarities and differences between human behavior and the behavior of animals. This psychologist carried out a study in 1963 where he discovered the phenomenon of counterfreeloading. In that study, Jensen used two hundred laboratory rats.

He placed all these animals in a scenario in which they had a container with food, with free access to it, but he also added a dispensing device to the cage, with the same type of food. This device released food if the rat pressed a lever. It would be logical to think that the rats would not even bother trying to operate the dispenser, since they had food in the containers.

But it was not like that. These animals showed that they preferred food that they somehow earned with their own efforts. This is an absolutely clear example of what counterfreeloading represents. Some might wonder if this is a behavior unique to rats. Other researchers wondered the same thing, so they began a series of experiments with other animal species.

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Thanks to that, Today we know that counterfreeloading is a fairly widespread behavior in the animal kingdom, since tests with species as diverse as mice, gerbils, different types of fish, several different birds, bears, wolves, giraffes, monkeys and even large primates, such as chimpanzees, prefer to earn their food with their effort. Would it mean, therefore, that it is a generalized behavior in all animals?

Rather, in almost all animals. There is at least one species that prefers that others provide them with food rather than having to make the slightest effort to obtain it. This animal could not be other than the domestic cat. Even so, we can affirm that in the majority of species studied the so-called counterfreeloading is observed.

Contrafreeloading in captive animals

Although Jensen was the first to use the word contrafreeloading, the truth is that some time ago, other researchers had already considered the principles of this behavior. For example, Robert Yerkes, in 1925, already spoke about the importance of using mechanisms that mixed play with feeding in the artificial environments created for primates that lived in captivity.

In other words, what I was proposing was precisely practice counterfreeloading so that the animals would have elements that would allow them to remain active and somehow earn food. This is exactly what associations such as Rainfer Fundación Chimpatia do today, a sanctuary for rescued primates, which have a second chance after having suffered the hardships of exploitation.

In Rainfer it is common use environmental enrichment techniques in which animals have to take advantage of their intellect to get hold of the food. In summer, for example, they are provided with blocks of ice with frozen fruit inside, with the double function of cooling them and offering them the challenge of removing the delicious piece that is trapped behind the frozen layer.

On other occasions, the food ration is prepared hidden in boxes or in various places in the enclosure, so that the animals have to move and participate in the search and are not limited to being served sustenance in a container. In this case, we could not say that it is exactly a case of counterfreeloading, since for this they should also have the other option available.

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But the reality is that when that happens, animals tend to choose the option that involves moderate effort. That would be counterfreeloading.

In many zoological centers this type of action is also commonly used, as they provide many animals with food directly but also place other pieces in devices that must be manipulated.

Animals mostly choose that second option, since It is an enrichment for them in an environment that is usually quite routine But what reasons underlie that decision?

Possible causes

There are several explanations that try to give a logical meaning to the counterfreeloading phenomenon. Let’s see the most important of them.

1. Primacy of information

The first of the causes that has been assessed has to do with what is known as the theory of the primacy of information. The explanation used by this theory is that, through counterfreeloading, the animal in question is obtaining relevant information about how the environment in which it lives works thus reducing uncertainty.

2. Natural behaviors

Another explanation is based on the similarity with the natural environment of the animal species we are studying and the situation in which it finds itself when it chooses counterfreeloading. A wild animal, in its habitat, rarely finds food gathered in one place without having to do anything On the contrary, he must strive, search, hunt.

Therefore, when in captivity, it can partially replicate those behaviors, choosing to work hard to obtain food.

3. Enrichment of the environment

The third theory has already been partly mentioned in the previous point. It has to do with the environmental stimulation that comes with proposing a challenge within a scenario that does not usually contain many variations. In this way, he would not have the stimulation that he would get in the natural habitat but it would certainly still be much more stimulating than finding food in a bowl every morning, without any change.

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In other words. What contrafreeloading would be doing would be alleviate the boredom to which some animals may be subjected, especially those that do not experience variations in their enclosure

The way to apply it

We now know much better what the concept of counterfreeloading means. We have seen examples and we have assessed some of the possible explanations. Let’s now focus on how to carry out a situation where the animal can benefit from the advantages of this mechanism.

Obviously, each species is different and so are the individuals within the same species, but the patterns are usually similar for many of them. To introduce counterfreeloading in a domestic or captive animal, we must begin by placing only a portion of the food that corresponds to it in the effort situation.

Besides, We must be restrained in the challenge we propose to you, because if the food is practically inaccessible, the animal will become frustrated and quickly abandon the task, heading towards the food that is “free” (the one that is available without effort). Therefore, it is important to adjust the difficulty of the exercise.

Later, and as the animal gets used to it, we can increase the obstacles and make it increasingly difficult for them to get to the food. Likewise, we will increase the amount, so that the reward is commensurate with the effort that must be made. At this point it continues to be contrafreeloading because you always have the option of heading to the food plate, which is the easy way.

But, if the conditions have been designed appropriately, we will see that the individual discards that possibility and prefers the adventure of solving the problem in front of him in order to obtain the prize after completing the work expected of him. Continuing with this routine, we will reach the last phase, in which food will only be provided in the form of a challenge, dispensing with the “free” container.

In this last phase we would talk about mere environmental enrichment but not contrafreeloading, since you would not be given the option to choose, having removed the easy option. But it won’t matter, because he will prefer the difficult one. Unless he’s a cat.