Pigeons learn virtual patterned-string problems in a computerized touch screen environment
For many decades, developmental and comparative psychologists have used a variety of string tasks to assess the perceptual and cognitive capabilities of human children of different ages and different species of nonhuman animals. The most important and widely used of these problems are patterned-string tasks, in which the organism is shown two or more strings, only one of which is connected to a reward. The organism must determine which string is attached to the reward and pull it. We report a new way to implement patterned-string tasks via a computerized touch screen apparatus. Pigeons successfully learned such virtual patterned-string tasks and exhibited the same general performance profile as animals given conventional patterned-string tasks. In addition, variations in the length, separation, and alignment of the strings reliably affected the pigeons’ virtual string-pulling behavior. These results not only testify to the power and versatility of our computerized string task, but they also demonstrate that pigeons can concurrently contend with a broad range of demanding patterned-string problems, thereby eliminating many alternative interpretations of their behavior. The virtual patterned-string task may thus permit expanded exploration of other species and variables which would be unlikely to be undertaken either because of inadequacies of conventional methodology or sensorimotor limitations of the studied organisms.